Friday, May 11, 2018


Can I confess that I've struggled with this lyric?
The Mississippi Delta was shining Like a National guitar I am following the river Down the highway Through the cradle of the Civil War I'm going to Graceland
I know it's idiomatic, but if you are "following the river down the highway," aren't you going south? And if you are going south to Memphis, you aren't anywhere near the Delta -- so what the f*ck would you know of how it is shining?

And if you are going north instead, and can see the delta, I don't think the cradle of the Civil War is anywhere nearby.  Charleston? Sure. Richmond? Might work. Atlanta? Maybe a stretch, but I'd hear the argument. The south side of Memphis? Nope. Hell, even Harper's Ferry has a better claim than Memphis.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Inferiority Complex in Blue

I think I'd trade every word I've written -- the hours and the cigarettes and staring at the blank page and the work of the right word to start with and the right word to end with -- for a little taste of what Ellington must have felt when he put down his pen, having finished "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart."

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Earth Angel

David Geffen, when he came out, added the caveat that he could never be quite certain of his homosexuality while standing near Demi Moore.

In a similar spirit, I am moved to declare that this atheist's principles falter when he gazes upon Irène Jacob. She's appeared in little of note for the past 20 years, but I treasure her roles in two Krzysztof Kieślowski films -- Trois Couleurs: Rouge and The Double Life of Veronique -- so thoroughly that I'm in some ways disinclined to spoil that by viewing her in lesser art.  (U.S. Marshals, anyone? Help yourself.)

Although Veronique is the earlier performance, I saw Rouge first, and it remains my indelible image of her: young, beautiful, and unaware of a role in a drama that seems to operate above the human level. Veronique, not surprisingly, pursues similar themes. In fact, many of Kieślowski's stories explore that foreboding feeling of what Robert Frost referred to as "design." Even to consider that possibility is unnerving, disorienting.

Not to dwell on the themes, here, but it does make a difference. Jacob is not unaware in an innocent way. This is not a virginal thing. Her sexuality is explored quite frankly in Veronique. Nor is she simply an ingenue, in need of a man to complete her. In Rouge, the man who has the greatest effect on her may or may not be god (or perhaps an avatar), and he appears to need her more than she needs him.

But there is a delicacy in her beauty that seems to make her the angel of this ironically vengeful god. And in Veronique, the universe seems to be able to support only her beauty; twice that seems to tip the scales too much. But delicate features without projecting delicacy -- strong and distinct -- and not an oval-faced cherub, but the kind of angel who might be hiding a sword in her gowns. Her figure lean and elegant, but muscular. Her window scene in Veronique is stunning for that reason -- she is beautiful, but not willowy. Perhaps it is not even worth describing her. Let a thousand words be spared.

Related image


Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Thought in Progress

Hopefully, I'll have time to come back and flesh this out a little more.  I was was struck by a thought this week.

If I had know 30 years ago how much of life was just making shit up as you go, I would have lived my life differently.  Somehow, I feel like I was always waiting for that moment when everything would straighten out, I would understand who I was and where I belonged, and all would make sense.

I realized rather late that life does not change in that fundamental way.  I've lived happy times and sad times; had jobs that seemed like play and jobs I dreaded every single day; and at various times had supportive friends and partners and other times felt all alone.  All through that, there has never been a time when I wasn't making shit up, improvising madly, feeling impostor syndrome lurking right behind me.

Maybe there are special people out there, always proceeding with confidence and certainty, unencumbered by doubts.  After 50 years on this planet, I'm inclined to call those people sociopaths and be done with it.

Kids, I don't know much, but this I have figured out.  Start now, do what you want, and take the f*cking consequences.  Because things don't really change.

Still Locked in Jetsons-think

I've always been a techno-optimist, even if I'm not an early adopter.  Just ask Razor how long it took him to talk me into an iPod.  To my credit, though, it was an easy leap from there to streaming audio, which I have learned to love.  I still miss the sound of vinyl, but who the hell has room for all that crap in their living room?

Anyway, this article about robot burger-flippers set me thinking about places where technology can and cannot create change -- at least without other changes coming first.  Go take a look at the picture of the "robot" in the article.  I'll wait.

It's a big robotic arm mounted in front of an old-fashioned flat-top grill.  And this is my beef, so to speak.  Why would the "big thinkers" interested in robotic burger-flipping want to mess around with retrofitting?  This is exactly the thing that holds back real innovation.  Think of the time and effort that went into creating all the technology needed to simulate a 16-year-old with a spatula.  I think of this as first-order robotics, or Jetsons-think: creating a robotic replacement for labor.  A robot that holds a spatula is like Rosie, the Jetsons' robotic maid, who holds a standard vacuum cleaner,

What is needed is more second-order thinking.  Instead of designing a robot to fit into a human work environment, shouldn't we be building the work environments around the robots?  I mean, unless you think we're suddenly going to decide we've had enough innovation -- the robots flip burgers and do nothing else, forever.  Humans will always do everything else.

That's not the way it works, though, is it?  If you were McDonalds, say, with big bucks to throw at this, wouldn't you be blue-sky thinking right now?  Wouldn't you be at the drawing board, redesigning the kitchen to be more friendly to automation?  Instead of a big f*cking robot arm in front of the grill, wouldn't you make a grill that requires no arm at all?

Imagine building a washing machine (which is, after all, essentially a robot), but building it in a way that mimicked the actual movements of a human doing the job -- pulling wet clothes from a tub and putting them through a wringer, for example.  Idiotic, right?  That's what this kind of thinking creates, and it means that technology created this way will never be more than an expensive novelty, a dead end off the road of deep thinking and difficult problem solving, the real work of innovation.

Rethink the task, rethink the environment in which the task is done, and design for that.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Wheel Turns

This wishy-washy editorial in the Times about public-sector unions may seem dreadfully vague. In fact, what isn't said is the clearest message of all. The problem is a serious one: collective bargaining over public pensions and benefits has quite literally bankrupted the state, with the smiling assistance of the governor himself. Now the towns are being stuck with the bill, and they aren't happy.

After several paragraphs setting up the problem, the writers finish off with this dreadfully jejune scoop of vanilla:
While mayors say they’re willing to pay more for pensions, many want the ability to shift their employees to defined-contribution plans that give them control over the costs. But will Democrats in Hartford defy their labor friends and rescue Connecticut’s underwater cities? Connecticut voters are only beginning to understand the damage from two terms of Mr. Malloy.
That kind of "we'll see!" conclusion is the crux of this biscuit. The Times, like all Democrat organs, is between the devil and the deep blue state policy. After generations of giving away the store on lavish salaries and benefits, nearly unbreakable job security, featherbedding, and underfunding state pension accounts, states like Connecticut (and New Jersey and Illinois and California -- seeing a pattern?) have an unfunded liability that is going to break the back of the budget in painful slow motion.

For years, governors of these blue states have borrowed against the future to win union donations and votes with little regard for the IOU coming due. These states are in major fiscal trouble, especially after the recession and no-growth recovery accelerated the problem.

Now to what the article says so clearly under its breath: Democrat governors, who have to balance their budgets, are on the other side of this issue from the national party. Party leaders like Nancy Pelosi are still preaching the model of happy unions, big spending, and welfare statism, while state Democrats like Andrew Cuomo have been getting awful nervous over the past 5 years or so looking at their bottom line. Others, like Connecticut's Dannell Malloy, just whistle past the graveyard.

The time will come soon, however, when the party will meet an impasse. The national Democrats will want to continue winning elections with union backing, while governors desperately try to dial it back to save their states from a Puerto Rico-style implosion. Some states are worse off than others. But all are under water -- except one: Wisconsin, where a Republican governor, Scott Walker, earned the undying hatred of the unions for exposing the fiscal shell game and putting the system on solid ground.

But not every state can count on a Republican to ride in and rescue it. Democrats will have to choose as well. Do they continue the spending spree, or do they too make the tough decisions? We'll see, indeed.

Saturday, January 27, 2018


I'm an educator. I didn't set out to be one. I wanted to be, at various ages, a musician, a researcher, a spy, an actor, a writer -- pretty much anything but an educator. I hated school, I hated teachers, and I despised the one-way thinking of American establishment education.

Somehow I ended up as an educator, partly out of economic necessity (what else does someone with two degrees in the liberal arts become?) and partly because I naively thought I could make things better. For the past 20+ years, I have written curriculum, tutored immigrants, taught Shakespeare to inner city kids, directed literacy programs from K-12, and coached college students who want to teach.

I've seen education from a lot of angles, and I've come to a one-sentence conclusion about it all: American education has confused formative assessment and summative assessment.

Formative assessment is what you look at along the journey to a learning goal. We're talking about getting a quick snapshot, a quantum of interim data that helps you adjust your curriculum or pedagogy on the fly. As a rule, it should be data-driven and specific. It should be binary; it should ask, are students getting it? Can my civics students name the three branches of government, yes or no? If not, I'd better reteach it -- probably in a different way, since formative data is most useful and accurate in reflecting the effectiveness of my teaching.

Summative assessment is, for lack of a better term, the final exam. We're now at the point of not being able to reteach. The course/semester/year is over. How did I do in getting my students from point a to point b? It seems to me that this data necessarily needs to be more flexible, more nuanced, more qualitative.

Again, I might want to know if my students can name the three branches of government -- but while I might ask them to take a quiz for formative assessment (i.e., name them), for the summative assessment I might ask them to write a song about them, make a poster about them, or stage a quick scene showing how they interact. Whether my students can name the three branches doesn't reflect my actual goal -- which might be to have students be able to work with that knowledge. (Getting them to name the branches is simply a heuristic to use along the way.)

Naturally, we tend to use the most inflexible method -- high-stakes multiple choice testing -- for summative assessment. And we use the more flexible and qualitative methods -- such as multi-intelligence portfolios and even intuiting from conversation -- for formative assessment.

This is backward and bizarre. What's more, you can take almost any contemporary problem in education -- teaching to the test, drugging "attention deficit" kids, excessive use of removal or suspension as a disciplinary tool, dismissing the arts almost entirely from the school day -- and trace it directly back to this single source.

And as far as tracing things back to a single source, the trend itself can be traced to the creation of the U.S. Department of Education. Once the federal government got involved, standardization was inevitable. Don't get me wrong. Standards are one thing. We should have some high expectations for educational outcomes. Standardization is another thing entirely. Standardization tends to happen at the lowest common denominator.

McDonalds meals are standardized, for example -- and there's very little love and pride that goes into the day-to-day creation of Big Macs in franchises across the country. That doesn't mean that the original idea of the Big Mac wasn't inspired. Think of it in conceptual form: a double burger with melted cheese, crisp lettuce, some pickles and onions for zip, and a tangy sauce to seal the deal. Sounds great! Put it on the menu of any bistro in the country. But in execution, it falls a little short of the concept, yes? By standardizing education, we made the same trade off.

The difference is that making a Big Mac without love or pride doesn't damage its self-esteem, blunt its creativity, or drive it to a state of grinding ennui. It's just a sandwich. But students, it's been said often before, are not widgets -- or mass-produced burgers. We can't stamp them out in a factory-style school, pour the right knowledge in their heads, and send the regional manager around twice a year to count the educational equivalent of the average number of sesame seeds on the buns.

The even more extraordinary element of the problem is that every superintendent in the nation would react with horror at the suggestion that we ought to McDonalds-ize the education of our children. I suspect that everyone at the Department of Education would nod at what I've written here. Every educator in the country would agree with that paragraph directly above.

The dogs bark, but the caravan rolls on.