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.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

As Long as We Are Wallowing in Guilt...

I've been listening to some lectures by Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who has made waves of late. He has some interesting things to say about the psychology of the citizens of tyranny. Some of this we know already from Hoffer's True Believer -- the psychological gymnastics needed to justify simply trying to muddle through as a person living under a regime like Stalin's or Hitler's. The Solzhenitsyns are few and far between.

We all believe (but especially lefties!) that, living under such a regime, we'd be proud and brave dissidents. After all, they are resisting Trump -- what could be more courageous?  But Peterson's statement is stark: Bullshit, he says, 99% of us would be exactly the go-along-to-get-along schmucks that did not stand up to Hitler. Germans are not more evil than Americans in general (they just seem that way); in a similar predicament, Americans would behave the same way.

By a kind of tortuous process, this led me to thinking about moral struggles and how we are so often blind to the actual issues that matter. Slavery, Jim Crow laws, eugenics, Japanese internment -- all these travesties had tacit approval from majorities in America.

So what are the issues today? What are we blind to that future generations will condemn us for tolerating? A glance at the news on any given day would lead one to believe that "institutional racism" and "rape culture" are the two glaring failings of America today, the things history will chide us on.

I disagree. I think 50 years from now, those issues will be seen as overblown. We know with some certainty that the scare stats on rape culture are horrifically exaggerated -- a quarter of college women are not sexually assaulted except under a meaningless definition of the term. And as cooler heads have examined the race issue, it seems that black suspects are not more likely to face police violence. That doesn't mean that we have reached perfection. These issues deserve plenty of attention. (What history will remember, I think, is that we gave these issues too much of the wrong kind of attention.)

No, the two issues on which our great-grandchildren will judge us harshly are 1) abortion and 2) the mistreatment of animals.

Look, before we go further, let's get this clear. What has two thumbs and is a pro-choice carnivore? That's right. No fair calling me a tool of the religious right on this one. (If you have a beef, so to speak, you'll have to debate me on the merits.) Moreover, I don't think I'll change my opinion on either issue real soon. I may change my own behavior, but the incursion on freedom needed to change these practices, except by slow social change, would be unacceptable.

First, let's take on abortion -- you know, because it's such a clear-cut issue. I think that the right of a woman to her bodily integrity and self-ownership takes precedence in the situation. But that view that obtains right now, among abortion rights activists, is that abortion is a morally neutral act. I think this is blind and foolish. Now I don't intend to start a guilt campaign against women who choose abortion, but anyone who does choose such shouldn't do so with her head in the sand. I think that time and science will only bear out the idea that the fetus is human, capable of pain, and in a sense conscious. It may not be enough to change the calculus on legality -- at least in my mind. But the "clump of cells" rhetoric will come to seem monstrous in a few generations.

Second, the way we treat animals is clearly callous and in many cases shocking. I think factory farming gets the most attention, but that's just the tip of it. From animal testing to pet ownership to even the humane and Whole Foods-approved ranching practices that simply paper over the barbarity of animal ownership, the root here is the right to determine whether an animal lives or dies. I'll be blunt: if you see a moral difference between shooting your own dog because he soiled the rug and butchering your own cow for steaks, you are lying to yourself. In either case, a human makes a decision to end the animal's life at his own convenience.

Should we criminalize burgers? Should we lay a guilt trip on carnivores who own cute dogs? No. But we should recognize that taking an animal's life is not -- again -- morally neutral. Will I stop eating bacon? Probably not. But if I'm a 90-year-old getting shit from the 2060 answer to millennials, I'd like to think I'll say, "Fair cop, kid."

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Folgers is the new PBR?

Imagine my surprise. Listen, my family is foodie to the core. My family was foodie when hipster-foodie wasn't even a bulge in the trousers of the father of a future Brooklyn artisan pickle maker. I was raised on it, my adolescence magically matching up with America's sudden and widespread discovery of flavor, giving Betty Crocker the heave-ho. (Sidebar: Remember when Chinese food was exotic? Watch movies and tv shows from the 60s and 70s. Chinese food was damn exotic.)

My parents drink Folgers (note, no apostrophe), my brother's family does, and my sister's family too -- a family of winemakers, for god's sake. If anybody in my family had an excuse to talk through their nose about the aroma and body of their favorite brew, they certainly would. And my ex (that's the former Mrs. Enobarbus) used to be a die-hard fair-trade pour-over Sumatra sniffer. Buys the house brand at Target now.

Hence, my question. Has the coffee wave broken, leaving little tidal pools of cappuccino foam on the shore of American culture? Will the gourmet coffee business go the way of the cupcake shop?

I suppose it is a truism that when the hip becomes mainstream, it is no longer hip. (The aforementioned former Mrs. Enobarbus herself, in fact, had a rule that stated, roughly: if Mr. Eno has even heard of something, it cannot possibly be the dernier cri.) And a corollary (Razor, you can't tell, but I'm pronouncing that with accent on the second syllable) might be that, once the cultural vogue goes mainstream, the trendy rats not only leave the ship, they denounce it on the way out.

The PBR comparison is apt. As craft beer became mainstream, Pabst became a way of showing that you had a certain disdain for the hoi polloi joining in the fun. (No, that's too cynical. Perhaps, rather, it's a denunciation of what happens to the quality of the product thanks to mainstreaming.) Whatever else it was, it was a clear signifier -- drinking Natural Light would not send the same message, after all. If Joe Sixpack is drinking IPA now, I'm going to go pinch his six pack of Pabst. A bit childish, perhaps, but understandable.

So, now, whither coffee? Starbucks has not crumbled. In fact, I'm guessing they are quite secure. The new Dunkin' Donuts, if you will. But they no longer serve coffee, really. They specialize in coffee-flavored milkshakes and the paraphernalia to go with them. It's been building for a while, but it seems like the perfect moment for a serious coffee drinker to go fully retro. In fact, maybe Folgers isn't going far enough -- opt instead for a cup of mud, a splash of java, a big mug of ink. Hell, the hippest will have ditched their pour-overs and vacuum pots for an old school percolating urn, dribbling out a tarry hours-old sludge that burns the throat and melts the GI tract. (The kind of stuff we drank at my first office job. The boss would throw back a cup at 7:30 sharp, grab the paper, and head to the bathroom for the next 40 minutes.)

As always, I feel bemused, at best. Starbucks, to me, meant nothing other than standing in line behind someone whose order took longer to say than to make. If I get coffee out, it's from the gas station. And for brewing at home? I mean, I saw the brands proliferate in the grocery aisle, but The Ever Cheap and Reliable Eight O'Clock Bean stands out in its saucy red bag, so I never really had occasion to look around.

What, am I above it all? No, I'm just cheap.