Saturday, January 30, 2016

Oscar nominated short animated films

Every year, we go to the movies to see these, and nearly every year, the best one is robbed by a flashier but less substantive Disney puddlemuck. Last year, the best one wasn't even nominated but was merely "commended." Even though it depicted Louis XIV's court as fat chickens! And the best of the nominated ones did not win. But this year, I'm confident that the Academy's insipid judgments will coincide with mine, because "World of Tomorrow" is so self-evidently excellent that no one can deny it. I don't know if it's better than the best of all short animated films (which did win the year it was nominated), "La Maison en Petits Cubes," but it's pretty close.

One of the strengths of this bizarre and charming genre is that the time constraint requires you to compress details, and the result is usually something like a visual parable. For some reason, this results in many films about, basically, mortality. Maybe animators just ask themselves, "If I had nine minutes in which to convey one point, what would be the most important thing to tell people?" and always answer, "Death." "World of Tomorrow" fits squarely into this tradition of cartoons meditating on mortality, but Hertzfeldt has the courtesy to offset all the moments when you'd otherwise cry with a joke, so that you end up not crying at all, and not knowing how one short movie comprised almost entirely of stick figures and floating lines and circles can be simultaneously so funny and so sad.

On the other hand, the Oscar winner might be "Prologue," because wow drawing so good that it doesn't even seem to matter what the point is.

UPDATE: But then I watched Hertzfeldt's long animated film, It's Such a Beautiful Day, and it was totally unremarkable.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Department of Bad Ideas: Holistic admissions 2.0

There is a crisis afoot in America: way more "youths" report that happiness and achievement are more important to them than "caring about others." Now, why would anyone think happiness was a greater end than selflessness? That is downright Aristotelian. It must be stopped. But how? Well, since the thing for which all American youths strive is admission to a prestigious college, because they hope that this will lead them to happiness and achievement, we ought to manipulate the criteria for this admission to reward only those who strive selflessly with success. Or, since success is a form of achievement and they're not supposed to desire achievement anymore, let's call it a reward of reciprocated care from the college of their choice, previously known as admission. Instead of selecting applicants for their perceived intellectual aptitude and promise of achievement, colleges should select for perceived sincerity and promise of moral goodness. What could go wrong?

The problem with the SAT was that it correlated too much with family income, and the problem with AP classes was that they stressed students out, and the problem with extracurricular activities was that students did so many that it was hard to tell which were "heartfelt," and the problem with the whole process was that it didn't "measure true ability or intellectual hunger." It was all so reductive and admissions committees are no good at discerning "true ability" from it. But you know what admissions committees are really good at? Determining the relative heartfeelingness and intellectual hunger of complete strangers based on what they claim about their heartfeelingness and intellectual hunger in essays carefully crafted for an audience of admissions committees. Surely it is more difficult to fake sincerity and "passion" than to fake an AP exam score.

Where grades and scores obfuscate "true ability," limitations on advanced coursework and extracurricular activities will reveal it. Grades and scores are so arbitrary that “we might as well be admitting these people on the basis of their height or the size of their neck.” What sense does it make to admit people to academic programs based on their previous records of academic success? It is obvious that people who care a lot about others will be much more capable of studying genetics and French literature than people who merely did well in science and literature in high school. We knew this when we first came up with the idea of holistic admissions in order to evaluate the whole applicant rather than just his practically worthless academic aptitude. But even holism was not enough, since extra-curricular activities only take up a few hours a week, and what we want here is to find the individuals who aren't just thinking about college admission a few hours a week, but every minute of the day. That is why "the nature of students’ day-to-day conduct should be weighed more heavily in admissions than the nature of students’ stints of service." Next time you're tempted to cut gym class or not tuck in your shirt, just remember, Harvard is watching.

All this is great news for poor kids, who evidently cannot be expected to demonstrate academic aptitude, but who can still be nice and authentic. If they tend not to score as well on standardized tests, but do tend to take care of family members and work part-time, we can make college more egalitarian by making taking care of family members and working part-time a pre-requisite for admission and getting rid of the standardized tests. Problem solved.

The best part of all this is that we know it will work: parents spend years trying to raise virtuous children, but elite colleges need only "signal" that what they want students to care about is, well, caring, and the youth of America will comply practically overnight. Next year, 90% of the applicants to Harvard and Yale will have suddenly discovered that their grandma - or someone's grandma - needed a lot of care, and will have spent 10 hours a week taking her grocery shopping (as illustrated in the report), and will effuse about what a meaningful experience it was. Of course, they will only help grandma grocery shop out of a genuine and authentic concern for their community, and not because they want to get into Yale. That will just be an incidental benefit. Because as everyone knows, the best way to cultivate authenticity and genuine concern for others is through bribery and manipulation. And the people most susceptible to being bribed into all this caring just happen to be those who prioritize happiness and achievement. Hm.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

"We’re seeing a real flight out of suburbs like Rancho Santa Fe"

There are many hilarious things about this WSJ article pumping up downtown San Diego as a walkable foodie valhalla, not the least of which is the cover photo of shirtless hooligans illegally skateboarding on an upscale condo development to demonstrate how classy the neighborhood has become. But I'm pretty sure that the image of a "flight out of Rancho Santa Fe" is the best. Try to imagine these poor, huddled masses, fleeing their unwalkable mansion developments with only their Birkin bags and the Lululemon hoodies on their backs. Their Range Rovers snake down the clogged I-5 South, strewn with the abandoned vehicles of refugees past, towards their last beacon of hope: the luxury high-rises of downtown San Diego.

Never mind that there are probably about five people in the entire county doing this, and all of them are quoted in this article. That's the definition of a trend article. Let us now consider the great attractions that the new and improved "city center" holds. It's "walkable." Which means what exactly? You can take a walk, just as long as you don't actually hope to get anywhere. Can you walk to the grocery store? Nope. Your doctor's office? Probably not. The local high school? Negative. You can walk to a number of trendy restaurants and to "touristy Seaport Village." I can probably walk to the airport, but why would I do that? Ah, but here is what walkable means:
A few months ago, Huey and Suzanne Antley sold their home in the northeast edge of San Diego and bought a 1,000-square-foot condominium in the Marina district downtown, a neighborhood known for its high-end condos, parks and touristy Seaport Village. The couple paid about $600,000 for their condo, which is near a park where they can walk their dog. 
Walkable means you can walk your dog in a tiny park. Of course, on the "northeast edge of San Diego," these people could've probably walked their dog in a five-mile canyon. But no matter. They are so excited about this that they're even considering ditching their car:
“We maybe use the car once a week for an hour,” says Mr. Antley, a vice president of a data analytics company, who works from home. “We’re kicking around the idea of buying a Vespa.”
Ah but if you work from home, you don't need to drive to work no matter where you live. With such flexibility, people looking for a walkable city experience could even move to a city that's actually walkable, which would not be San Diego. We're talking about a place where you can't drive more than five miles in any direction without having to get on a freeway to go any further. And you can't walk on the freeways. And come to think of it, you can't drive a Vespa on the freeways either. So maybe this couple should consider the building with the "boat-share program" mentioned in this article before they trade in their car, so they can have some means of leaving their walkable urban paradise to get provisions.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

How Kenny Chesney can help you select a spouse

If you listen to country music (which of course you do, because it is great), you've probably heard the Kenny Chesney song, "Down the Road." If you also happen to be a Jew from Skokie who didn't realize that "Amazing Grace" was not in fact about a woman named Grace until you read about Calvinist theology in college, you may also have been puzzled by the line in said Kenny Chesney song which goes, "Mama wants to know if he's been washed in the blood or just in the water." What does this mean? Does Mama want to know if her prospective son-in-law believes in transubstantiation and is a Catholic? That seems doubtful, because there are no Catholics in country music. Well, behold, the internet has answers. The best thing about this is that this church has not here offered simply a general theological clarification, but a specific response to and endorsement of a Kenny Chesney song: "A popular country song by Kenny Chesney describes a mother who wants to know if the boy that her daughter is going to marry is 'washed in the blood or just in the water.' When young Christians are contemplating marriage, that is an important thing to consider." America is great.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015 in review

2015 was the year when I could count the number of alcoholic drinks I consumed on one hand, and 99% of the people on Facebook had babies. Either that or the people who had babies posted 99% of the photos that appeared on Facebook. (The other 1% were photos of Alex's cat and Phoebe's dog.) I think this is a pretty good configuration though.

Some things happened in the world, but politics moved from something that happens in the world to something that happens primarily in retweets.

Last year's resolutions were mostly fulfilled, because low bars produce easy winners. The only areas of little progress were in generating publishable non-academic thoughts, and escaping California. But I suppose this was balanced out by good things that I didn't explicitly resolve to do, like incubate a small person who has my genes (although I'm not certain that she will see that as such a good thing when she discovers what these genes are) and get another academic article accepted.

So the resolutions for next year are to find a job and move back to civilization, or one or the other, but the one will probably facilitate the other.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

An open letter to Google Scholar

Dear Google Scholar,

I would like this amazing thing added to my citation count pls. Actually, I would like it double-counted. Can you arrange for that with your techno-wizardry? Kthnx.

Sparkly hearts,
Miss Self-Important, Very Serious Scholar

Saturday, December 12, 2015

On lullabies

I wouldn't have thought to consider this strategy of sleep inducement because white noise was working so well,* but then an accidental playing of the Brahms Lullaby knocked her right out, so I decided to look into what is obviously an old and well-worn method of making babies sleep.** It's not that I don't sing to the baby, but I just make up horribly unmusical things on the spot, mainly containing the lyric, "Go to sleep so Mama can finish her dissertation." Pre-made lullabies seemed easier than trying to come up with verses that rhyme with "dissertation." The problem is that the only lullabies I know are...questionable. For example:

- "Hush Little Baby": In this song, a parent bribes the child to sleep with a number of bizarre gifts that no infant could possibly desire or use, including a diamond ring and a "cart and bull," and when all these extravagant bribes fail, assures the baby that it is sweeter or cuter than everyone else. The primary lesson is one of unfettered materialism and vanity.
- "Frere Jacques": This song encourages waking up instead of sleeping. Definitely the wrong lesson.
- "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star": The child narrating this song just wants to know what the star is, and instead gets five stanzas of quaint digression that never answer his question! Lyrics could stand to be updated by an astrophysicist.
- "Rock-a-Bye Baby": In this song, the eponymous baby falls from a tree and presumably dies. What kind of message is that?!

Further research turned up a number of more comforting songs for babies, but they're more complex musically and lyrically, so they take work to learn. Also, they're usually Christian. (Babycenter claims "Amazing Grace" is a lullaby - as if someone as musically-defective as me can produce that on demand!) I assume this is why they've failed to attain the popularity of the simple, secular songs above. One poem I was surprised not to see turned into a popular lullaby is Stevenson's "Land of Nod." I found it set to music in - of all places - Natalie Merchant's album of children's songs. (My childhood musical enthusiasms are now making music for my children.) But her tune is not very sing-able. Actually, few of these tunes are, so as an effort to create lullabies out of old children's poems, this album is kind of a failure.

* Nobody else seemed to think that putting babies to sleep by piping the sophisticated sounds of "rain on car," "washing machine," and "hair dryer" into their ears is creepy, so I accepted this practice (plus, it's so effective), but I'm still a little troubled by the sense that white noise represents a way of pushing the baby back into the womb rather than leading it out into civilization, as music does.
** But its antiquity and repute may be such only because of the failure to discover the magic of white noise earlier.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The university as a revival meeting

I spoke too soon, since if Helen Andrews is right, maybe American universities are ready to become - or take the place of - churches. This is an interesting parallel to the Great Awakenings, especially this:
One new development is how easily administrators are caving. Why did the Yale girl’s expletive-filled tirade result in an apology...and not her immediate rustication?...The activists have also benefited from the same loophole that has protected every revival in American history: They can’t condemn you for getting serious about beliefs that everyone else is supposed to share.
Being denounced as "unconverted," in the parlance of the First Great Awakening, can only hurt if you claim or desire to be converted in the first place. But that makes the present situation essentially a fight over authenticity within the Left, and conservative critics into the unchurched outsiders.

And if we follow Helen's narrative of (unconscious? subconscious?) secular absorption of older Christian modes of thought and behavior, then what is the functional equivalent of "conversion" or salvation in this situation? The revivalists, being mainly subscribers to Reformed theologies, at least thought there was a possibility of knowing that you were saved, in this life. But in a progressive political framework, the repentance of sinners doesn't seem to have an end. So what similarly satisfying marks of success do the campus protesters offer in place of Reformed certainty?

And while we're at this functionalist parallelism, what's the equivalent of James Davenport's public de-pantsing that brings the affair to an end?

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The limits of tolerance

I thought I'd become accustomed to all the baby's bodily fluids and excretions until she came down with a cold a couple days ago, and we were instructed to remove her snot with what is surely the most grotesque device imaginable: the NoseFrida, sub-named "The Snotsucker." It's basically a nose enema. An adult sucks the tube, creating suction by which heretofore unseen boogers from somewhere way up the nasal cavity and mercifully out of sight come shooting out. It's a horrible sight. It's very hard to accurately weigh my competing desires that the baby recover from her cold and that I never, ever have to suck snot out of her.

UPDATE: My resolve didn't last very long.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Department of Bad Ideas: The university as a really big homeschool

Commenters have been observing for some time that the campus activism of the past few years (arguably the past 25 years) has differed from its 1960s predecessor in requiring more adult oversight and intervention rather than trying to overthrow adult authority on campus in the name of student liberation. Student demands always include hiring more professors and administrators - that is, more adults - to provide them with desired goods and services, which include everything from identity representation to counseling to punishing their on-campus enemies. This pro-paternalist tendency is easily seen from the outside, but not something students themselves have usually admitted or perhaps even recognized, and for obvious reasons given the negative connotations of the term.

But now suddenly everyone has decided that open paternalism is exactly what the university should aspire to! Ok, well, maybe not "paternalism," but some nicer-sounding synonyms like "family" and "home." Seizing on a now-removed student op-ed lamenting the failure of the writer's Yale dorm to be a good family to her, the commenters have decided that the goal of modeling the university on the nuclear family is a reasonable and even noble one, and it's what schools are promising anyway, so they may as well live up to it:
Particularly in the way things have unfolded at Yale, students’ social-justice activism has been expressed, in part, as the need for care from authority figures. When they experience the hurt that motivates them to political action, they’re deeply disappointed with parental surrogates for not responding adequately or quickly enough to support and nurture them...The students’ preoccupation with safe spaces and the comfort of home seems a plausible manifestation of the profound lack of security—from violence to financial insolvency—that their generation faces. No wonder that their calls for social justice return to the talisman of safety and care of parental figures.
This is a rapid change in rhetoric. Did UChicago advertise its housing system in these familial terms when we attended? I recall a lot of boasting of the relative amenities of different dorms, but no promises of surrogate parents to lure us in. However, I just discovered that the U of C was planning to close and sell all of its so-called "satellite dorms" - the smaller buildings that are more than two feet from the main quad - and herd all the students to within hugging distance of one another. So I decided to look at the housing website, and lo and behold, it is now brimming with familial rhetoric about "caring for one another" and resident heads who "share their family lives with you." Times have changed, and become extremely creepy.

So we might wonder whether a university can be made to resemble a home and family. There is homeschooling, after all, so education at home is possible. And maybe if college students were typically orphans, the university would be an appropriate sort of institutional homeschool and surrogate parent. But since they're not and they come from already-existing families, how will the university home-family relate to the original home-family? What if its family values are at odds with those of a birth family - which "family" takes precedence?

Suk and Lind seem to assume that modeling a university on the family will bring about fundamental ideological harmony among its members so that adversarial dispute can be replaced by "support" and "nurture." But the more siblings there are in a family, the greater the potential for fraternal conflict, and the less parental support and nurture there is to go around to soothe it. So what can we expect from a family of 25,000 siblings? Perhaps we can expect 25,000 parents, in the form of additional administrators hired to provide additional nurture and support. But then we'd really have 25,000 different families, each student with his own nurturing administrator-father empathizing with him against each of the others, rather than one big one.

And what about the disciplinary and punitive aspects of family life that are completely overlooked by all this focus on support and nurture? Suk writes that "a child in pain desperately desires empathy and understanding from a parent," but parents don't just dish out unconditional empathy; they also dish out punishment, rebuke, shame, guilt. Insofar as families are places of any sort of unconditional acceptance, this tends to mean that they continually forgive their own black sheep no matter how terribly they behave, which on this analogy means giving a free pass to the very students whom the activists accuse of racism and exclusion, etc. and ask Dean Mom and Resident Head Dad to restrain or punish. And isn't there something disingenuous about claiming to want university authorities to be like your parents, and then calling for their removal when they don't respond to you the way you'd prefer? Parents are probably the only authorities whom you can't fire or replace at will, and by seeking it, don't students behave more like consumers or voters than sons and daughters?

This all suggests, as Phoebe has also noted (somewhere?), that the residential college is either overtaxed (if you want to see it as a passive victim), or it that it has overreached. It's one thing to provide decent room and board for students while they're studying far from their real home, assuming that such communal living arrangements will come with their share of conflicts as well as camaraderie. Under these circumstances, dorm residents remain primarily students, and are only incidentally boarders. But it's quite another thing to elevate dormitory living to the university's guiding purpose, and to promise a constantly fulfilling social life free of strife and slight in them. Characterizing the whole operation as a kind of therapeutic family dedicated to student mental health, as Lind hopes, transforms students into sickly orphans. And what does that make the rest of the university? Can it remain an institution devoted to research and study when its students are primarily to be viewed as fragile or damaged children in need of care instead of education? Or will it have to become an orphans' sanitarium?

As I've said before, these sorts of arguments and policies which infantilize adults and discourage adulthood are almost always bad news. When politics starts to get all intimate with you and tells you that the state is your daddy and its citizens are all your brothers, that is usually a good cue to channel your inner libertarian individualist and run away. To be someone's child is to be dependent on, ruled by, and obligated to obey this person. This is fine when you actually are a child, but perhaps you can imagine how quickly things can degenerate when you're an adult encountering other adults who just want to take care of you, and all you have to do in return is surrender some, or maybe all, of your liberty. Maybe that's a reasonable trade-off so long as you're sure your new caregivers have only your best interest at heart. Just like it's no problem to "weaken free speech protections in the name of sensitivity" when you're "sure that [your] version of sensitivity will prevail."

A university is not the state of course, but the same opportunity for despotism appears in other associations that model themselves on the family. Only churches seem to be capable of sustaining the paternal model of authority, but I'm not sure that American universities are quite ready to become religions and elevate their paternal figures into gods. Fraternal relationships can work as models for small and exclusive associations since sibling relations are more flexible and less hierarchical than parental ones. But even fraternal associations get less effective and more scary the bigger the "brotherhood" in question becomes. The family is the first and most basic unit of civic life, and so a perennially tempting model for the rest of civil society, but it's unlike all other associations. You only get one set of parents, and once you leave them, you need to figure out how to have other kinds of relationships with people that aren't paternal or parental. Adulthood opens other ways to find support and nurture - marriage, friendship - that allow us to move beyond the parental relationship and avoid collapsing everything into it. Even "in a world that is genuinely frightening and unjust," as Suk puts it (and when was the world otherwise?), you will probably be better off living off-campus than in a creepy dorm that wants to adopt you as its child and envelop you in a long, suffocating group hug.