“We’ve been smart” – Better times in American History / 1988 Moscow Summit

Lately I’ve just been so down every time I put the news on, and when I heard Trump’s comments at the joint news conference with Putin, it really came across as a low point in American history. I’m not talking about the substance of the comments necessarily (though those were disturbing to me), but more the way he disparaged the country with the toss off line, “I think the United States has been foolish.”

This country really has been foolish and wrong throughout history, and in the past I’ve written about the lack of historical understanding around Labor Day (it was a capitulation to labor leaders after a violent crackdown against unionization), antebellum Irish immigration (they were worked to death, as opposed to slaves who cost money), and the myth of Columbus (his troops were genocidal rapists that enslaved the native population).

But we’re far from foolish about everything. In fact, we do a lot of things right. I decided to counterprogram the stream of invective and bitter resentment that is current news and social media by writing once a week about something Americans did alright with. I, like many others, can’t stop watching the news, but I need some good stuff (and I’m not talking about soft-news interest pieces). I’m planning to write about great moments in culture, communication, and yes, maybe even some science.

This week: a timely reminder of diplomacy we could all be proud of.


1988 Moscow Summit

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan attended a special screening at the White House of a film called The Day After, which depicts in graphic detail the effects of a nuclear attack on the United States. In his diary that night, he wrote that he found the film “very effective” and that it left him “greatly depressed.” Four years later, the U.S. and Soviet Union would agree to ban intermediate range nuclear weapons at a summit in Washington D.C.

I don’t think, growing up as I did during the tail end of the Cold War, that I fully understood the prior animosity towards the USSR. I knew that they were the enemy, but I also didn’t understand why. This seems natural to me now. It was another generation’s war. My parents used to joke that they got a great deal on their honeymoon hotel because they went to New Orleans during the Cuban missile crisis (it was true), but on their bookshelf they had a title called A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union that I used to page through. It certainly has pictures of soldiers and state buildings, but it also depicts ordinary folks doing the same things we do, walking the same beautiful landscapes that we have here. It’s a photographic overture to detente.

In 1983, did Ronald Reagan even think that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire”? I imagine there were a lot of hard liners that this message resonated with, but the 1988 Moscow Summit wasn’t about hard-line tactics. The summit itself was something of a failure, with no “substantial progress on strategic arms control issues” resulting from the meeting. Nevertheless, Reagan had the opportunity to visit cultural sites and interact with the Soviet leadership in a more relaxed setting, having just pinned down that major arms ban treaty the previous year.

During the trip, Reagan and Gorbachev walked around Red Square with a group of security agents and press standing around them. At one point (about 10:00 in this video), they discuss the potential of a student exchange program; after Reagan gives a broad outline, Gorbachev remarks that they will meet each other while they are still young. The tail end of the remark is unintelligible due to background noise. Someone then points to an onlooker holding his child, and Gorbachev takes the kid and holds out his hand for Reagan to shake. The onlookers seem like plants, and it is pretty convenient that there’s an adorable child just as they come to the topic of student exchange, but the sentiment surpasses the artificiality of the setting.

Later, when a reporter asked Reagan if he still thought the Soviet Union was an “evil empire,” he replied simply “no.” His reaction shows that he’s a bit uncomfortable in that moment. Perhaps he was thinking about the infant and the average folks that wanted nothing to do with nuclear war, realizing that the hard line approach was something of an awkward hanger on in the current atmosphere. Gorbechev starts to say something, and the reporter follows up with a “why not.” Reagan comes up with a truly great response: “I was talking about another time, another era.”

Bullshit, you might say, as that era was theoretically only five years prior. But the pace of change was picking up. Reagan viewed the Cold War as essentially over after the summit, but the major symbolic end really was only a year away with the fall of the Berlin Wall, called for by Reagan in 1987.

His comments weren’t exactly an apology or a capitulation, but they effectively brushed aside mistrust and hostile rhetoric in favor of a future focused on peace and arms reduction. I remember being in middle school in the 90’s and laughing when a teacher tried to tell us that we still needed to learn “duck and cover,” just in case nuclear war broke out. The optimism and diplomacy that those leaders demonstrated at that summit may not have resulted in any nuclear weapons being destroyed, but that spirit enabled an entire generation of children to think the prospect of a nuclear war was a relic of “another era.”

Updates to my personal website

I recently updated the structure and look of my personal website. The old site (shown below) was starting to look a bit dated. It had actually been in good condition for a long time, but Twitter decommissioned their API v. 1.0, which broke the only source of dynamic content on the site. I also started falling behind on updating my CV in the last couple of years when I was writing my dissertation.


Probably the biggest update was changing the markup to HTML5 and actually taking advantage of the transition property afforded by CSS3. The structure of HTML5 is a much better fit for documents like a CV.

I tried to showcase dynamic content throughout the new site. The home page has a section that imports the most recent post on this blog and grabs my Twitter feed. The CV has better formatting for the headings, a “sticky” navigation bar for the CV sections, and (most importantly) up-to-date information. I also added a portfolio page that better showcases some projects that I’ve been working on recently. It only has a video section right now, but I plan to add a graphic design section soon.


I made 56 57 total commits to my GitHub repository over the course of four years, but apart from a brief effort over the summer, most of the work was done in the last few weeks. In the meantime, I’ve guided hundreds of students on making their own websites. I’m reminded of an old adage: the electrician’s house has the most burnt out light bulbs.


Update: This blog post actually broke the spacing on the home page since the last post had a longer, two-line title. Nothing like one more commit!

Thoughts on “We elected Trump because of Facebook” argument

Summary: Nope. That’s way overstating the impact of social networking sites, and way understating the intelligence of the people who use them. The biggest problem: generating connections and empathy between disparate users.


We don’t live in a world were we are exposed solely to the information cocoon of our Facebook friends, unless you never leave your house, turn on the TV, or talk to other human beings. For instance, I doubt very much that people widely believed that Hillary Clinton was running a pedophile ring or that the Pope endorsed Donald Trump. If anything, so called “fake news stories” (read “lies”) nudge us in the same fashion as the National Inquirer, a publication no one believes (except for Trump); if you don’t like the person to begin with, you maybe like him/her fractionally less after reading “fake news.”

“But,” you say, “the BuzzFeed story said that anywhere from 20 to 38 percent of news on Facebook was ‘fake’ in one way or another.” Agreed, but here’s a rebuttal: people get hundreds of emails a year advertising “Canadian Pharmaceuticals” and “Sexy Asian Singles In Your Area” and “Why Global Warming is Fake,” but I doubt many are seriously investigating these possibilities. Just because someone clicks on something doesn’t mean they accept it as the truth, and it doesn’t mean they’re a rube who can’t tell the difference between bullshit and reality.

Facebook has a couple of problems on their plate right now. Problem one goes like this: they’re showing us things that we want to see in order to get us to click on more shit at the expense of showing us things we should probably know but maybe don’t want to see. That problem is bad, but not as bad as problem two: we aren’t learning very much about each other as a result of social networking sites, suggesting that these sites build little to no consensus or empathy. Rather than shit kick FB for failing to manually disambiguate so called “fake news” (we were all screaming for algorithms to control Trending Topics six months ago), we should think about the real problems posed by social networking sites, mainly that they aren’t doing a very good job of connecting us as a country.

Problem one

The underlying technological issue behind problem one presents itself if, by chance or choice, you click on a “fake news” story (or any other link, for that matter). Upon returning to your feed, you will be presented with the lamentable “People Also Shared” option that force feeds you more of the same (which you presumably click on). That leads to the inevitable worry: “If you see an argument enough, it starts to look true.” That’s a problem, but it’s a social problem not inherent to Facebook.

Rather than talk about an article on FB, we’re all more apt to fall into the “spiral of silence,” where we use the site to post news articles to an audience of our choosing (FB friends) that are representative of what we think, but we don’t particularly want to have a debate. Nor do most people actively seek out their ideological opposites to get their opinions. Instead, if something is possibly going to cause offense or even trigger a negative comment, we self censor. Hence, we end up reading a lot of repetitive things that possibly influence our thinking, but we don’t share our opinions (e.g. the so called “white silence”). In that way, problem one can cause a chilling effect, but I don’t see Facebook fixing that one by adding a self-flagellation icon for staying silent on a social issue, so I’ll defer that to the end of this post where I talk about hard things to fix.

What about the “if you see it enough it becomes true” argument? The underlying problem is that many of us are not trained or under-equipped to critically evaluate information we encounter on the internet. When we search, we look at the first page of results (at best), and if they conform to our assumptions, we accept it despite knowing that search results = algorithm + harvested personal data. When we look at product reviews, we go for the “most helpful,” ignoring potential manipulations from strategies like “sock puppeting” or “astroturfing” (phony reviews or comments made by the person hocking the product). We miss a lot of information that could otherwise be very useful. Also, search activities = relative individual worth + available time.

As a side note, I have observed one activity that transforms an average citizen into the grittiest of investigative reporters: saving ten bucks on a hotel. Maybe we should fine people ten bucks for re-posting a “fake news” article (sadly, it would put The Onion out of business, although by the above logic that may be a valuable service, especially for those confused over whether Kim Jung Un is the sexiest man alive).

I saw a suggestion that Facebook should discontinue the news feed and change the formatting on bogus stories, presumably to make them look “faker” than “real news” stories. I’ll be damned if I can tell the difference between the fake celebrity magazines and the real ones at the grocery store, but I just assume they’re all horseshit and proceed about my business.

No, it’s not Facebook’s job to search out “fake news” and reformat it. Nor is it their job to teach us to critically evaluate an article entitled “The Satanic Connection Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Want Anyone to Talk About” (actual website, by the way). It’s up to our educators to do a better job training the next generation to be skeptical about what they read, especially when it’s only what they want to hear. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but in my experience as an educator, young folks are doing a lot better than the OG in terms of filtering out the bullshit on the internet.

Problem two

Problem two is the underlying social and technical problem that will consume the next decade: How do we get people to connect to people outside of their own social circle, and how do we teach people to voice their opinions even when they are unpopular? I’m not sure you can change a platform like Facebook to make that happen, but I have some suggestions:

  • Optionally suggest a friend connection with one random person per month. You don’t need to force it on people, but put in a suggestion other than Mark Zuckerberg (I mean, Jesus, how many friends do you want, Mark?).
  • Promote some random posts into the news feed. Maybe even make them bulletproof by stripping the name of the person posting. Just let people see what others are thinking.
  • Instead of promoting narcissistic behaviors (selfies, FB Live, etc.) through the design of the platform, find a way to use it to build connections and empathy, maybe even hooking people up who want to debate issues and adding a moderation feature.

Every social networking site can’t do everything, so you can’t just kluge together a bunch of other features, but you can promote more inclusive behaviors among members instead of endlessly remixing content in their own personal information cocoons. Isolation leads to polarization, and polarization leads to a loss of empathy. A path to the dark side that is.


To conclude, I’m usually the first to kick the shit out of Facebook for everything, but let’s stop it with the whole “Facebook cost Hillary the election.” Just like our false belief in polling and statistics combined with our inability to connect and empathize with our fellow citizens, Facebook is one problem among many.

Don’t Breathe (2016)

Dir. Fede Alvarez, 88 min., City North 14


Mr. Alvarez’s bona fides at creating an exquisitely suspenseful situation are established when our “protagonists” (slightly ennobled theives) are up against the blind burglary victim after he cuts the lights in the windowless basement of his house: the tables have been delightfully turned as the burglars grope around attempting to avoid his line of fire. While the film thrills in that moment, it fails in it’s attempt to carry that sense of exquisite tension throughout the entire film, and it struggles when moralizing and (eventually) demoralizing the actions of each party: robbers and the robbed.

With horror master Sam Raimi listed as a producer, the physical beatings and gross-out comedy are upped to the max. Some characters take such a pounding that it’s beyond any strain of credibility that they could arise and function, regardless of any adrenaline (which has probably faded given the somehow long-seeming run time of 88 minutes). A single robber is punched in the face repeatedly by the blind robbery victim (a former marine, no less), whacked over the back with a shovel, grazed with a bullet, thrown out a window, and nearly choked out twice. Like the living dead, he is resurrected again and again to suffer more punishment. Perhaps if this were a Die Hard-esque protagonist, or even an unkillable villain (also represented in this film), his repeated reinvigorations would fit the genre mold, if not the threshold of disbelief.

As a heavy, Stephen Lang (credited, simply, as “The Blind Man”) cuts an ominous presence, partly through his imposing frame lurching from room to room and partly from the fact that he seems to magically appear around every corner of the dilapidated Detroit house where he hoards his million dollar cash fortune (discussing how he obtained it would be too much of a spoiler). He comes across as a monster of Greek myth: the Minotaur lurking behind the corners of his Labyrinth in the ruins of a great city. The setting is innovative, but, given the resurgence of Detroit, it seems like the idea came five or six years too late. While a great concept, the maze-like nature of the house made following the action a bit confusing; the irony and tension is only palpable when you can see the route of the protagonists on the way to their final mistake.

Most horror stories dispose with the cell phone, which could solve almost any horror movie problem, and this film is not the exception. Once the technology is dispensed with, Don’t Breathe becomes a reverse home invasion horror story where the invaded terrorizes the invaders. Although there were endless avenues that the advertised “twist ending” could have followed, the most obvious route was unfortunately the direction the director chose. Nevertheless, it’s a solid home invasion genre piece that has some suspenseful moments.

RT: 87%
AV Club: B+
Me: C+

R.E.M. – “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” (1996)

R.E.M._-_New_Adventures_in_Hi-FiAs I said in my last post on 90’s music, my middle/high school years were marked by running into a lot of bands by the third or fourth, or in this case, fifth album. As such, I never experienced R.E.M.’s jangly, pop revolution in their first album trio. The first record I purchased was Monster, an album I like a lot more than this. Whereas Monster feels like an album with a coherent concept that was hard wrought, this album comes across as an indulgent inclusion of outtakes into half of a great record. Before I trash a bunch of the tracks, I’ll start with what I like.

There’s a really great album within the album here, and it’s one that could have been released as an EP that would have been, if not mindblowing, then really a solid 90’s genre piece that capitalized on the grittier side of the sleazebag vibe Beck hit on in Odelay. Michael Stipe has several modes, but when he gets menacing alongside some of the country-western guitars and distortion, it creates a bleak vibe to match the album cover artwork. Without further ado, I give you the real Hi-Fi:

  1. How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us
  2. Undertow
  3. E-Bow The Letter
  4. Binky The Doormat
  5. Low Desert

That’s it, man. Right there is all you need from this album. “How the West…” opens with a bizarre narrative that starts in a uranium mine and somehow flashes forward into L.A. (or somewhere like it). I still don’t really get the lyrical progression, but it seems like a kind of alt-narrative of manifest destiny, if that makes any sense. Undertow has some fuzz that pleasantly complicates the general pop refrain, fading out into some seriously good reverb to close the last minute or so of the track.

“E-Bow The Letter” goes full dark-Hollywood, a theme that Stipe would explore further in later records. Patti Smith delivers the backing vocals, doing her best Baby Jane impersonation of the faded ingénue. It might be one of my favorite R.E.M. songs of all time. “Binky” takes a more conventional approach, but the chorus is classic R.E.M., getting a good performance out of the Mike Mills (whose vocals are generally underutilized throughout). Finally, “Low Desert” flashes back to the menace with Stipe as an wandering outlaw, getting out of town just before he ends up in jail. It doesn’t really have refrains per se (just a series of hey, hey’s), but it’s got great lyric writing:

All the ashtrays, cities, and the freeway drives
Broken casino and waterslide
Eighteen-wheeler, payback dice
Gravity pulls on the power line

Jet stream cuts the desert sky
This is a land could eat a man alive
Say you’d leave it all behind

And then boom, you’re done, shaking the dust off your jacket. Sadly, this is more of a hybrid, shoehorning in what sound like too peppy rejects from Monster to round out the album. Perhaps my most loathed early R.E.M. song, “The Wake-Up Bomb,” communicates absolutely nothing that I can discern. I think it’s about being hungover after a “Don’t Stop Me Now” kind of night, but if I heard this song come on when I was hungover, with it’s overly enthusiastic percussion and Stipes screeching delivery, I’d rip my speakers out and throw them through the window. Not only that, it drags on for five interminable minutes. I wrote this entire paragraph during the first four minutes of re-listening to this song.

There are a couple of borderline tracks that might have made the cut. “Bittersweet Me” has a good guitar riff and baseline, but the lyrics are a bit lacking. “So Fast, So Numb” is likewise strong, and borders on that faded Hollywood vibe that “E-bow” mastered. The album closes out with “Electrolite,” which has typically beautiful piano playing from Mills, but it flies in the face of “E-bow” without fully establishing the contrast necessary to make it work against the vibe of the earlier tracks on the album.

Now I’ll bag on the rest. “New Test Leper” sounds like Stipe heard Natalie Merchant’s “Wonder” and translated it to the daytime talk show circuit. “Leave” starts with a ponderous slow guitar progression before blasting into some kind of engineered “wah wah” and repeating the same progression in a higher key with an electric guitar. Stipe borders on rock messiah, stadium filler territory here, channeling the worst of Bono. In further pomposity, there is a track near the end entitled “Zither” that consists solely of a solo using a Zither. I rest my case.

I read that this record was put down during sound check before tour dates. Hard miles on the road, the emptiness of the stadium, and the hollowness of stardom all add positive elements to the stronger tracks. It’s a pity that there was no one to edit out the rest.

The Witch (2016)

the_witchDir. Robert Eggers, 92 min., In Theater

Can a contemporary film address the tired genre of New England witch films? Robert Eggers makes his directorial debut banking on the fact that he has brought something new to the genre, and while his film executes on a number of levels, strength of story is not one of them.

Overly-proud town preacher William (Ralph Ineson) is banished along with his family due to a disagreement with the corporation of his 17th century New England settlement; the exact nature of the offense is only vaguely hinted at, but he seems to be a bit of a holier-than-thou type. William’s homesick wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), grows bitterly resentful as they trudge to the edge of the woods with their young children, the youngest of which is not long for the world and whose loss throws her into a deep depression.

Their children, the teenager Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her younger brother, Caleb (the aptly named Harvey Scrimshaw), function as something of surrogates for their parents: the boy learning the ins and outs of trapping and preaching, the girl assuming the duties of the mother on the homestead including child care (despite the disastrous loss of the aforementioned baby while under her care).

Early in the film, it becomes clear that this is not a metaphorical witch in the ilk of Miller’s Crucible, nor is it the never-seen phantasmagorical witch of The Blair Witch Project. This is your straight up, child-stealing ancient hag, casting black magic in her hovel and running naked through the forest. The closest comparison characters I can summon are the witches in Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971), where there’s nothing glamorous or seductive about the witch lifestyle (at least not without some appealing supernatural artifice).

That interpretation of the witch folklore seems to match the grinding punishment and defamiliarizing nature scenes through which the family must persevere. Although they wake up on the first day of their banishment covered in mud and swarmed with mosquitos, one quick cut later they are living in a finished house with a bustling farmstead replete with goats, chickens, and a nearly finished barn. That scene of domesticity is quickly interrupted by the tragedy of the lost child, transporting the family into an panoply of migrant fears (most of which are better represented in Terrence Malick’s The New World). Then settles in the daily grind of settlement life: the crops are failing, food is dwindling, and the bleak grayness of winter looms like a specter.


The film looks really sharp, with a number of well-shot reaction close ups that amplify the horror scenes. Eggers clearly paid attention when watching his Kubrick, borrowing the atonal wailing chorus of 2001: A Space Odyssey to supplant diagetic sound as characters encounter their worst fears. There are not many traditional jump scenes, the director instead focusing on creating an uneasy vibe that matches the strangeness of the archaic speech patterns and bizarre religious incantations (I find Puritans to be an inherently creepy set– nothing sets up a suspense film like tightly-wound fanatics). Likewise, Eggers really brings out the horror of the natural world, whether through a dead animal or the numerous ways that nature is dispassionately at odds with our survival.

All that being said, the film fails to deliver on any real subtext. Each of the characters had a particular sin that they were punished for: pride, wrath, lust, etc. Had the punishments matched the crime in more instances, I would have seen the subtext: the devil and hell are real and we are all punished accordingly for our mortal sins (though I might have slammed the film for being too obvious then). Another possible outlet was the concept of original sin, which is certainly touched upon in the film, but slowly fades away as the film progresses.

The devil certainly assumes the role of nature run roughshod over these suffering settlers, yet I can’t help but find the representations to be painfully obvious. A witch that presents as a “secret, black, and midnight hag,” skittering around the woods with her familiars, doesn’t do much in terms of bringing something exciting to the genre. Neither do the sometimes obvious representations (the devil as a goat, the so called “devil’s book” as a literal book, etc.). The period settings are very of-the-period, and the gross outs are super gross, and it’s not exactly as if the plot beats were telegraphed; it’s just that everything I expected to happen eventually happened ten minutes later. There were no “left turns” or “curve balls” or whatever you want to call them. It’s a damned shame the film didn’t come out in the fall around Halloween, when you could leave the theater to crisp air and barren trees instead of chattering birds and sprouting buds.

Perhaps my disappointment with this film rests with the fact that some of the best “dark woods as devil’s domain” films I can think of off the top of my head do something brand new with the genre: Evil Dead 2, Blair Witch Project, Cabin Fever, Cabin in the Woods. There’s more meta-level commentary on the genre in those films, and this film is sorely in need of some tongue-in-cheek moments to break up the grim Puritan vibe. It’s taken so seriously that there’s a title card at the end of the film slapping you in the face with the writer/director’s historical research.

My final verdict is that while this is a well-researched, well-shot, well-produced film that looks and sounds great, it really can’t breathe any life into the witch genre because, in the end, it champions utilitarian execution to the exclusion of insightful commentary on the genre. It feels like the gritty, modern, ultra-serious remake to a campy 1950’s thriller that doesn’t exist.

RT: 89%
AV: B+
IMDB: 7.4
Me: B-

Six changes to my teaching approach this semester

I’m trying to finish my dissertation this semester (again), so I did a sort of audit of my teaching practices during the summer semester to see what I am spending the most time on. I thought it would be helpful work out some changes to my approach here:

  1. I’m quitting Blackboard again. I thought Blackboard would save me tons of time, but it actually manufactures more work and worse assignments. Posting just about anything and setting up the assignment reminders and submission deadlines is just busy work. Part of learning as a student should be organizing your own schedule and learning to manage your own time with your own tools. No one puts stuff in my calendar or to-do list, so why am I spending all this time setting one up for my students? We’re going to have a WordPress site for each class and the information will be in the syllabus. Instead of early dismissal on the first day, I’m thinking we will talk personal information management and how to get stuff done in college.

  2. Assessments are happening during class from now on. I started using the exam feature on Blackboard last spring to give my students quizzes. I always thought quizzes were a waste of time. I figured I should instead design assignments where students needed to incorporate what they learned from readings/discussions, but students invariably ignore those requirements and often view the grade deductions as a cost of doing business. When I started giving quizzes, the number of students that read and could discuss the readings dramatically increased. I thought I was pretty smart, but it only made a new problem. By pushing assessments to outside of class, I was creating a bunch more time that I had to fill up with more discussion, which meant I was adding more readings. Those extra readings, while worthwhile, were non-essential, and students would invariably only read one of the two pieces. From now on, quizzes and exams are taking place during designated class time.

  3. Email responses will now be 24-48 hours, minimum. When I started teaching, I promised a response to student emails within 24 hours. Over the years, my policy has regressed dramatically. Over the summer, I had a student send me an email at 10pm, and then resend it at midnight with the implication that “maybe he didn’t get the first one, and that’s why I don’t have a response yet.” Worse yet, I actually responded to the damn thing that night. I’m sending emails out in the afternoon, once per day. If I get an email after I’ve already sent emails for that day, it’s getting dumped in a folder until the following day.

  4. Bad questions are getting one-line replies. There is such a thing as a bad question: it’s a factual question that I already answered. Many of the emails I respond to are because students didn’t carefully read or couldn’t be bothered to check the syllabus, assignment descriptions, or a past email. In those instances, I’m sending one-line replies referring them to the document instead of answering their questions. Past me would have thought that a dickish move, but present me just sees it as practical. If I invest the time to write a structured document, I should expect that students invest the time to extract the information they need.

  5. One mandatory draft read per course. I’ve always thought that drafts were where it’s at in terms of learning because I was taught that making students complete iterative revisions is how one teaches writing. Upon reflection, mandatory drafts just encourage lazy, incomplete documents. Last time I taught technical writing I reviewed two individual project drafts from each student, and one draft of each deliverable for group projects. That’s 52 drafts, at a conservative 350 words of feedback per draft. That’s 18,200 words just on draft feedback, a.k.a. one (large) dissertation chapter. I’ll still read drafts when students ask me to do so, but I’m only requiring it for the first major assignment.

  6. One assignment, one grading session on one day. Speaking of those drafts, they used to take up the better part of two days of reading, rereading, and commenting. Then I would do it all over again on the final submission. I have slowly moved to the one assignment, one grading session model, and this semester I’m going to execute it fully. When I sit down to grade, I am defining a set amount of hours for the task, and the session won’t stop until every submission is graded.

I don’t think things were necessarily better back in the day (e.g. white-knuckling it to the department office to slap a printed copy of your term paper in a mailbox before 5pm); however, I do remember being held accountable more often than I hold my students accountable. I also think students asked more questions in class and actually came to office hours because professors didn’t carry around a distraction device that connected them to their email accounts 24/7.

These are my modest goals for this semester. I’ve been told before to be selfish with my time, but I don’t think these fit into that mold. I want my students to become more empowered to handle stuff on their own, and less dependent on me to clear everything up for them. They might even (gasp!) contact a classmate before asking me. Before emails and constant contact with professors, this was pretty much how it was done.

Beck – “Odelay” (1996)

220px-OdelayThe first disc I ever spun on my brand new, Nickel-Cadmium powered, rechargeable, refurbished Sony Discman was Pearl Jam’s 1994 album, Vitalogy. That was, by my recollection, the last year my brother Brad lived at home during his final break from college. He had brought home with him his sweet stereo system and speakers that I have yet to eclipse in my personal ownership, and his vast CD collection. I had poured through it, sampling almost every genre of music popular on the college scene, but he moved to the big city and took his CDs with him (sadly, before dirt cheap CD copying technology arrived).

When Odelay came out, I was 13 (going on 14). I bought the album on a trip to Best Buy with my mother and grandmother (before you judge, see the part of the blog where I lived in the sticks and there was no music store in my town). My brothers had somehow pooled their meager earnings to purchase for me a Sony stereo system when I graduated middle school. It had a dual tape deck, a three disc turntable on the top, and a digital AM/FM tuner with 30 presets. I still have it today, and I bring it with me if I’m working (it is now a glorified FM stereo, as the CD player has been broken for years and the tape deck is essentially useless since I no longer have any tapes).


The amount of storeable presets was laughable, since we only got maybe 15 channels on FM, and only about three that I actually cared to listen to: Q101 (these days it plays a strange mix of early alternative and what is loosely called “alternative”), 103.5 (hard rock, now defunct), and 93.1 WXRT (which I equated at the time with old-person rock, but now is my go to).

In retrospect, none of these channels were very good. On occasion, I listened to a song I liked, and bought a really great album, but mostly I just ended up buying a lot of CDs made by bands of marginal quality for about four or five years before I got cable, started watching shows like 120 Minutes, and (ultimately) moved down to college. This was not a very productive period in my music life. I flirted with pointless bands like Alice in Chains, hoping to extract meaning from very thin performances. I got to many of them by the third or fourth albums, after the good stuff was done and over with.

I’m not sure all these years later that Beck was one of those acts, but re-listening to Odelay sure sounds like an album with a high concept, but precious little substance. For what it is, the album delivers on a wide variety of samples, inventive(ly sampled) beats, and definite atmospheres. I’m not sure what the dominant atmosphere is (even now), but “70’s night club with a variety of sleazy characters milling about” seems to capture many of tracks. Let’s just forget about all of those, including “Hotwax,” “Lord Only Knows,” the off-key “Derelict,” and the ubiquitous “Where It’s At” (if we’re ever going to get to some of the good stuff on this album).

“Devils [sic?] Haircut” opens the album and transcends a lot of the rock tropes at the time. The solos, such as they are, are jarring and full of abrasive guitar work. The drum echoes and guitar motif sound borderline industrial, and the track turns somewhat aggressive in a Reznor-esque way with Hansen’s final, distorted, screaming chorus. “The New Pollution” tries to follow in the same suit, but the slick production work and brash saxophone put it back in that 70’s club. It’s really trying to break through, but this track is a major regression in my opinion.

The energy on “Minus” and “Novocane” is still pertinent. On the former, the nonsensical lyrics are not a distraction, but carry the frenetic pace of the song. When it lulls out with a discordant break about 70 seconds in, I get the sense that Hansen is trying to communicate with the listener: “Goddamn dude, I just sent you to fucking space on a rocket ship, give me a sec.” He then returns even crazier, with a backing vocal track that’s going way off the rails, before once again coasting to a halt: “That’s it. You rode it. I’m out.”

That’s what still works for me about this album. The sleazebag vibe, whether this was a “concept” or not, doesn’t come across so hip anymore, especially not after his subsequent two albums where he milked exotica for all it was worth. My love for his forays into hip hop on this album tell me that I had a burgeoning interest in this genre as a kid, but my isolated upbringing in the Illinois countryside without cable television left me precious few outlets for such an exploration. The difference between Beck and hip hop artists that I listen to today: they have more to say than Beck, write lyrics that are clever/socially poignant, and are much more skilled at the delivery.

After all of this, I still have a huge affinity for the album. If nothing else, Odelay is a Herculean fusion effort, where Hansen successfully merges country, folk, rock, and hip hop into an aesthetic. I find the lack of lyrical meaning largely excusable (my favorite band in the universe, Wilco, has plenty of tracks with some crazy nonsense vocals). I can’t see my college age brother listening to this album with his friends and liking it, but much like the access to his CD collection, this album primed me for even weirder musical excursions in the future.

Okay, gotcha, next please

R.E.M – New Adventures in HI-FI (1996)
Many Artists – Tibetan Freedom Concert (1997)
Sublime – Sublime (1996)

Rock and roll will never die – the return of 30 years in 30 weeks

Saving my ridiculously outdated blog from obscurity reminded me that I failed to complete my musical reminiscence that I began two years ago. Here’s what I originally promised back in 2013:

I’m calling this project #30yearsin30weeks, but the actual time frames are pretty arbitrary. I may give up on this relatively soon depending on how busy I get or how my interests shift. Seeing as I started this blog on a faulty premise, I’m not too concerned if I f**k this one up.

Yup, fucked it up just like I said I would. I promised an exploration of “middle/high school, college, and early graduate” albums, and delivered only on middle school. As I am currently high on my blog once again, I can promise you a renewed effort for a few months, and then another long absence when I get too busy. If I’m still around and writing this blog years from now, I may even quote that last sentence.

Here are the albums I said I would revisit last time I gave up, so that’s where I’m headed next:

Beck – Odelay (1996)
R.E.M – New Adventures in HI-FI (1996)
Many Artists – Tibetan Freedom Concert (1997)
Sublime – Sublime (1996)

Bizarre TiVo advertizement

TiVo sent me the following ad via email. It’s framed as a first-person letter to me from my TiVo unit telling me that [he, she, it] is too old and needs to be replaced. It’s almost like a break-up email, but then it starts referencing weird things like “cousin” machines that are a “better match” for me.

I’ve been receiving ads for years to upgrade to a “better” unit that can record, I don’t know, six shows at once or something. The thing is, I genuinely don’t want that. I don’t have time to watch most of the stuff I record now, let alone watch more.

This is the classic Hail Mary pass of communication: you’ve exhausted every type of rhetorical mode, so someone decides to get inventive and fires off something that really should have been scrapped on the drawing board. Most of the time these things are either too high concept, or just tacky. I’ve posted the message in its entirety below:

Andrew ,

It’s me, your TiVo(R) DVR.

I’m writing this letter with a heavy heart, but I’m doing it for the both of us. I think you’re perfect in every way, but I feel like I’m no longer the one for you.

It’s been many years since we first connected and, let’s face it, we just don’t communicate like we used to. Look, it’s nothing you did wrong; I’ll take all the blame. I looked in the mirror the other day and realized that, even if you knocked the dust off my back, it wouldn’t change the fact that I’m just so damn old. I know I’m only slowing you down.

Of course, I’d like to always be here for you, but I think my cousin Roamio would be a better match. TiVo Roamio can serve you in ways I can only dream of. You deserve the best, and if you call TiVo now you two can get together. I know you’ll hit it off.

The cool thing is, I’ve already told my friends in TiVo Customer Service about you and they’re ready to hook you up with Roamio right now! Call them at 877-289-8486 and receive an exclusive offer(1):