Friday, July 27, 2012

Just for fun let's join the pile-on on Slate's bone-stupid and dirt-ignorant science reporting

Confession: I like Slate and many of its features.  There are often good stories in Double X, I'm a fan of Emily Yoffe's Dear Prudence advice column and Matthew Yglesias's economics articles, and I rarely miss Brian Palmer's Explainer pieces.

But their science reporting not only chronically sucks, it's also very oriented toward the sort of thing that trying-to-be-hip liberal arts grads think is science reporting:  food additives and why to be scared of them.  What trendy people who want to be green are doing with their used underwear.  They do manage to get that the anti-vaccination stuff is bullshit, but then they try to be fair to the anti-vaxers anyway; on issues like creationism, global warming, and so on they tend to run articles about how many scientists or other experts agree and not about the evidence or the arguments, probably because they can count people in white coats but they don't really understand evidence or arguments.

And then there was today's spectacular piece of craptastic reporting.  Luckily for us all, the story (which is credited to Slate V Staff (V is their video channel)) managed to screw up the distinction between a solar system and a galaxy, which thus alerted intelligent third and fourth graders that the writers did not have a farking clue what it was about.  For a while apparently the screwup was in the headline as well, but now it appears to only be in the article text, the url for the article, and a picture caption (more progress may happen later).  So they went from having it wrong in 4 places to having it wrong in 3, which I think should count as a 25% improvement.

Here's the article location (notice stupidity in url): go on over there, oh faithful followers, and pile on it!

And for those of you who don't have time to do that, here's what I said there, which is actually the more serious matter:


They also managed to miss the actual scientific significance:

Kepler 30 is our twin in only one respect:  it is a non-Hot Jupiter system.  Most of the exosolar solar systems discovered so far have been Hot Jupiter systems, i.e. ones where you have a great big honkin planet, Jupiter sized or even bigger, in a very tight orbit (Mercury or closer).  In  all Hot Jupiter systems where the planes of rotation of the star and of the planet have been determinable, it has turned out that the two planes are wildly out of kilter, and in Hot Jupiters with multiple planets this also has turned out to be true of the other planets; i.e. they're not in a common plane.

Our own solar system is one of the very few non Hot Jupiters so far known.  All our planets are in a common plane roughly parallel to the solar equator.   Kepler 30 is another non Hot Jupiter.  The research team was able to determine -- using sunspot versus eclipsing -- that Kepler 30's three planets are all in the same plane with its equator.   There are now TWO non Hot Jupiters with the solar equator and the planes of the planetary orbits all aligned.  This suggests that non Hot Jupiter systems form from the primitive disk and stay that way, whereas the much-more-detected (either because they are more common or because they are easier to find with current tech, we can't know which yet) Hot Jupiters suffer one or more cataclysms that throw their planets into orbits far out out the plane in which they originated. 

This in turn may explain the apparent absence of other civilizations so far in our radio search for them: maybe only right-sized worlds in the habitable zones of Non Hot Jupiters offer enough time for intelligent life to develop, and maybe that kind of real estate is  terribly uncommon.   It also may offer a perspective on the formation of planetary systems generally; maybe by far the most common process results in Hot Jupiters.  Maybe the process of detecting the planes of the equator and the ecliptic and matching them can be used to find the elusive non Hot Jupiters. 

In any case, it is a big, interesting science story, at least as interesting with regard to where we actually are in the universe as the Higgs Boson or the unknown hominid ancestor story,   and  it was totally missed by the Slate staffers, whether they were interns, regular staff dipschittz, elves for whom Slate didn't set out fresh bread and milk, or some wandering homeless guy that they gave a bottle of gin to if he'd just do a science story for them. 

AND, as many others have noted, they didn't manage to understand the difference between a galaxy and a system.  God forbid they ever have to handle a globular cluster.

On the bright side, I'm sure the piece about why American women will still wear bikinis for the Olympic beach volleyball event was probably thoroughly vetted and dead accurate.


And that was the last line of my comment at Slate.

Now, look.  I know it's perfectly possible to be trying to scientific accuracy and to screw it up.  In fact, my own novel Losers in Spacewhich really really really tried to stay true to the hard sciences, contains an overwhelming whopper for which I shall probably some day shine Howard Davidson's shoes with my tongue.  (Well, actually, Howard's too nice a guy to really make me do that.  I hope.   But he'd be entitled, dammit). 

And it happened for probably exactly the same reason that Slate's lousy reporting did: I thought I knew more than I did but was in fact massively ignorant and easily confused.  That can sometimes be the beginnings of wisdom, and perhaps Slate will redeem itself by hiring a couple of real science reporters.  But as Dave Barry wisely said, it's not nearly as effective to tell a kid that "Darling the stove is hot and you mustn't touch" as it is to hold his little hand on the burner (yeah, I know, I will now get 3-5 emails telling me that there are people so dumb that they will read that and do it; maybe I need an eleventh form letter).  So go over to Slate, grab'em by their metaphorical wrist, and don't let'em go till it smells well-done.

And while you're at it, if you're on Amazon or Goodreads and reviewing Losers, you might point people to that blog post; I wince a little every time someone says the book was written with "perfect accuracy"  or some such phrase.  (On the other hand, I cackle with evil glee every time someone complains that it was written with perfect accuracy, or grumbles that they found yucky old science in their science fiction.)

Late breaking word: io9 gets it right. And io9 has never really pretended to be anything other than pure fun.  Of course, aside from being more accurate, their article is much more fun than watching that silly video at Slate, which looks like a slapped together at the last minute project in a Communications for Non-Majors course.

Friday, July 20, 2012

A data point for the self-publishing world

So, in the ongoing effort to get people to read Raise the Gipper!, which I'm very happy with but which I am guessing will start going stale in September*, I'd been offering it free online, in a chapter-per-blog-post format, over at this sister blog. Originally I figured I'd use that to start some conversation and get a few more people to give it a try for word of mouth, so since the actual Republican convention starts on August 27, I figured I'd take the free version down a month before.

I did say, originally, "unless I change my mind," and here's what's changing it for me: about half of all the orders for Raise the Gipper! are coming in from the "of course you can also just buy it" links embedded all through the sister blog.  Apparently folks read till they either decide they don't like it (about a third decide it's not for them by the end of Chapter 1) or decide they'd rather just have a copy and read it in their preferred format (blog post is not the most pleasant way to read, but it's free**).  There's a nifty little exponential decay curve down through about Chapter 7 (the chapter where the Gipper actually rises and starts doing zombie stuff), with people either disappearing or buying the book (and as you'd expect, the further they read, the more likely it is that they'll move to a buy), and then a small (like, less than 20 so far) devoted coterie seems to be reading right out to the end.

The real numbers seem to be that for every 25.8 people who click into Chapter 1, or every 17.2  people who read Chapter 2, I get a sale either from my e-junkie bookstore or via Amazon or Barnes and Noble. 

Well, honestly, the freebie is much more than paying for itself.  Much as it pains my fingers to type "Corey Doctorow appears to be absolutely right" I am forced to by sheer statistics.  So at least till sales slow down a lot -- and maybe not even then -- I'm leaving the read-it-free-on blog page up. (Link to your right, and go right ahead).

And for other writers venturing into self-publishing, let me just point out three things I think are probably very relevant:
1) Political satires like this were a nearly extinct genre, so there's a very large number of readers who don't know if they like them; the benefits of letting them try as much as they want are pretty important.  It's not like erotic romance, for example, where there are tons of readers and it's generally agreed between writer and reader that this book is going to have plenty of That, which the reader will want, the equivalent of operating a pretty good pizza joint or hamburger stand.  It's more like  selling Turtle Sauce Picante, where most people have no idea whether they like it; you need to let them sample a lot.
2) The blog-per-chapter format works pretty well because a person who really gets into it can just keep clicking the link a the bottom of each post and zip right on through, but it's just inconvenient enough so that they'll notice this could be a good deal more convenient for just $4.99. I'm not sure if I were just handing out free downloads if it would work as well.  Maybe some future book I'll try those.
3) I do have a non-economic motive here; satire is a weapon -- if it doesn't aspire to lethality it isn't satire -- and I don't think anyone will have any trouble telling which side I'm on in the current election.  So much as I wish everyone on the planet was buying this book and making me rich, I get immense satisfaction from having any sizable number of readers, and therefore I'm not likely to be disturbed by any lost sales.  Mileage on such issues varies a lot.


*when it turns out that the Republican party did not actually nominate a shambling corpse for president, Earth is not actually under attack by evil bugs from outer space who have taken over the brains of the financial/economic/political elite, and Occupier girls and Tea Party guys don't actually go out with each other (sadly, that may be the least likely of everything in the book, including divine intervention)

**another insight: most of the people who read the whole way through in the blog are reading on their phones or other mobile devices.  I think it's just that this particular blog template has a nicer mobile than full-screen format.

Monday, July 16, 2012

A few thoughts about teaching (mostly math) as if you were not a dolt

A mathematician friend of mine–I'll call him Bob because that was his name, and maybe I'll get lucky and he'll see this and get in touch—had a passion for some really abstract, fundamental stuff: number theory and set theory. That's extremely hireable nowadays because it's used constantly in various applications to/for/of computers, so he had no real fear of unemployment, but he was also aware that a hundred years ago all those things that fascinated him had been a backwater, regarded as an odd little branch of interest only to extremely serious math people.  (He had learned this while stuck teaching math history as part of his TAship.) So he noticed that older work, the founding documents in the field, had a distinct quality of "ain't this cool?" that nowadays you have to go to web pages about obscure musical genres or visual artists to find; more contemporary papers had a whiff of engineering about them that made him uncomfortable
Every so often, this sacrifice of the spirit of play and artistic grace, for the sake of commercial and practical interests, would cause him a burst of melancholy (usually not long after he'd cashed his paycheck, particularly after he had a family to support), and he'd mutter that the terrible mistake mathematicians made was in letting people know that all that glorious and beautiful stuff was useful.
For a while I riffed on possible short stories in an alternate history in which Kepler's Music of the Spheres stuff had led to physics being done entirely in music (which is after all another elaborate system of transformations in which strings of bits become other strings of bits according to regular rules). Unfortunately, when I ran that idea past Bob, he pointed out that the density and compactness of information in math is so much higher than it could be in music that you would need symphonies to add a grocery bill, so I gave up and never returned to the idea.*
Lately, though I'm still not seeing any fiction in it, I find myself thinking about Bob's complaint from a different, teaching and learning standpoint.
For decades I've known enough business people to hear the standard grumbles about having to hire kids without skills, but in the last decade, as standardized testing has expanded, I've noticed that I hear a slightly different grumble more often: about the kid who can pass tests but doesn't seem to know how to use the information outside of that context. I also spend a fair bit of time around teachers, and hear the usual grumbles about teaching to the test, which are so familiar that I won't rehash them here. And not least, I'm occasionally around young people, many of whom appear, god save us all, to like all the testing, because it means, in effect, knowledge control: all you have to do is pass, then be forgotten with the rest. (For example, at the career college where I taught most recently there was a perpetual simmering student complaint about being expected to remember material from another course in the current one, or about having to take courses in a particular order, all tied into a kind of odd model of the universe in which if you passed enough tests you got to be an FBI agent or a brain surgeon or some such, sort of The Last Starfighter model of knowledge if you will).
It seems to me that we've got a strange model of "useful," and it's at the heart of the whole mess that surrounds standardized testing. Testing has become more and more Mandarin -- i.e. a way to find and reward people who can memorize, regurgitate, follow directions, and in general fit into the workplace in giant bureaucracies. The "use" is that finishing far enough forward in the school-race gets you into one of the slots where there's a good paycheck and benefits; it's not about being able to do the job, or only secondarily about that, it's about reserving the better slots for people who are The Right Sort.**
It's about getting the position, not doing the job. This, of course, is annoying to managers on the floor who need people that can and will do the job; it's frustrating to teachers who feel like they have been assigned to be anointers of the suitable*** rather than bringers-out and developers of abilities. It's uncomfortable for many good, thoughtful parents who see their kids becoming adroit ladder-climbers but inept makers, doers, fixers, and caretakers.
Ultimately a system built around such examinations simultaneously robs worthy students of the strength that comes from accomplishments, and gives the less worthy (and the downright shitty) an unearned and treacherous positive self-image. Like the Cowardly Lion's medal, the Tin Man's certificate of appreciation, or the Scarecrow's diploma, it's transparently awarded whether or not the person is actually brave, generous, or smart.**** The emphasis on test scores actually pushes the best to lack all conviction (because they have the wit and nerve to see and face the truth, that the congratulations and praise were bogus) and the worst to be full of passionate intensity (because the one thing that a lifetime of gulping down bogus praise will do for you is to make you really, really enthusiastic about believing lies, and insistent on being told them).
It also slowly corrodes teaching. It has long ago been demonstrated, over and over again, that the "best" teachers, the ones who consistently get high test scores from children, don't actually teach to the test much (except in the purely regurgitational materials). Rather, they teach skills and puzzle-solving, and when kid meets test, the kid solves the puzzle, using those skills.
Really crappy teachers do teach to the test, very probably because with their own limited abilities and experiences, they can't imagine any other way of passing a test. Very likely these are the same teachers who got through school themselves by loading their memories with the "just say this and you'll pass" material at the review sessions. It is sadly possible that they didn't see any point to all that stuff they were loading their memories with—perhaps there was none to see, perhaps they hadn't the ability to see it.
There's an ugly irony about standardized testing and the rotten teachers it was supposed to help us eliminate: it probably protects many more of them than it eliminates. Standardized testing may catch the completely inept teacher, who would probably be caught by any system of evaluation, but it also protects and enables lazy and mediocre ones, who can safely stop trying to teach, spend all their time drilling, and remain ensconced in the classroom for decades because they produce "acceptable results."
The teachers that standardized testing hits hardest and hurts most, though, are almost certainly the middle group: the ones who could really teach, out of genuine liking for students and learning and a desire to connect them, but who are frightened and bullied into being silly drillmasters, and neither encouraged nor enabled to do anything better. The caliber of principals and other administrators is generally lower than that of the teaching corps as a whole, and so they are even more subject to panics about whether the students are receiving enough test drill, and apt to lean on their teachers to do more of it. Thus a teacher who might have become a great math or reading teacher, or better still might have taught students to use their reading, writing, or math skills to explore the world in history, science, or a dozen other fields, is instead pressured into conducting drills and "Now on a multiple choice question, if you can eliminate one answer..." and so forth. Which is to say, it pushes all but the finest teachers to teach like the barely competent.*****
So for those of us who teach part or full time, I'd like to suggest that whenever and wherever we can, we try to slip Bob's insight into our teaching. As long as the subject is "useful" only to passing tests, it will not only have all the appeal of room-temperature overcooked vegetables, it will also accomplish nothing more than giving nothing to the Tin Man that he didn't already have.
Instead, help the students to put it to use just for pure amusement.
If it's math, show students how to play with numbers, whether it's cryptography or packing problems, calculating rocket velocities or batting averages or the number of friends who can sit at a table if frenemies don't sit next to each other or how quickly their city could deal with Godzilla. Let them see pattern and rhythm in numbers and fractions.****** Ask if they see ways to improve on the Sieve of Eratosthenes. Teach them to crack the code of the composition prompts, sure, but as a subset of cracking any text—which also means figuring out that cryptic note from the boss. If it's more interesting to have them do it as part of a game in which they are intelligence analysts trying to figure out where Agent X-12 is being held, great; but there's a surprising amount of entertainment in abstract problems.******
Most of all, recognize that the standardized tests are set up to create a safe pathway for dolts, but that is not the only safe pathway, and if by any chance you're not a dolt, it's not even the safest. Test-drilling will not protect your job in the long run as well as teaching actual skills and grasp of the subject, because the test can change instantly at the whims of several levels of authority, but the subject can't. It is also far from the best for the students; this phase of capitalism's relentless plugging and closing of upward-leading slots in the economy means there are fewer and fewer places for the well-connected and prepped "qualified" person, but the state of technology and business also means there is more room than ever for the ones who can actually do something. If you can steer them toward growing a brain rather than accepting a diploma, in the longer run, you and they will be all right.

*For a pretty cool take on the same basic idea you might see Melissa Scott's classic Five-Twelfths of Heaven, which was considerably better than any idea I ever had about music-to-math.
**Notice the etymology here; it's not unlike the Sorting Hat at Hogwarts, ne?
***Perhaps even in the sense of "able to become a suit in some large office block."
****That's what makes the scene in the movie such a classic, because "Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn't already have." They all deserve the awards and recognition they are receiving, as outward signs of the brain, heart, and courage they were ostensibly questing for, and actually had all along. But they are receiving them from a charlatan who has no idea what what they actually did, and wouldn't care if they did know, and who means to cheat them. You don't get irony better than that.
***** This is another effect of the systematization that divides the highly and the less skilled more deeply and completely every year. If you remember the Lopez lifeguard case, this is another way of making the good-potentially-excellent function like the marginal-potentially-adequate, as Whatzisname points out.
******I don't mean "instead of" (in the way that  some teachers have turned math class into group drumming); I mean that a kid who has a grasp of a time signature is only a short step from understanding quantum numbers and suborbitals. Maybe I gave up on that short story idea too easily.
******* Here's one I've used on just barely or just recently literate/numerate students: given a particular dictionary, how would you find the two words in it which are adjoining but farthest apart alphabetically? (There are dozens of ways). Now is there any way of deciding which way would be fastest without actually trying them against each other? And how sure could you be of your answer? Does it depend on how you define "farthest apart alphabetically?" I've seen a bright eight year old spend most of a day on that problem ... and I guarantee she learned a lot more doing that than she ever would have memorizing "first try to eliminate answers that include the words always and never."

Monday, July 9, 2012

Raise the Gipper!: Chapter 18: The echo of that tremendous crash -- up and free till July 27

Raise the Gipper! Chapter 18: The echo of that tremendous crash:

And that's it. Very short chapter.  Really I should probably have called it an epilogue, or broken chapters differently, but the Battle at the Moose Grinder was one long continuous scene with no good place to break in the middle.

Ronald Reagan rises one more time.  The obvious affection between him and his wife was one of those reasons I found it difficult to loathe him as much as I wanted to, so I sort of finished out with that because it seemed like giving him a little bit of a fair shake.

And as for the rest of the ending: Pedantic lecture here: classic comedies end with a wedding or a promise of one, sometimes multiple ones.  Once all the grotesques and liars, lovers, and clowns have been shuttled off the nice people pair up and live happily ever after.  

Anyway,Raise the Gipper! will now be up for 18 more days, and after that, it'll continue to be on sale while Teh Interwebz stands.  The half dozen of you who were reading a chapter a day, I hope this last one gave you a good day.  And the one very nice person who asked if Joe&Aura were going to have further adventures ... well.  Not soon.  But I prefer to think of them as out there somewhere, figuring out where they're going, but knowing they have to stick together.  Rather like a certain large, fractious, awkward nation I know.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Raise the Gipper! Chapter 17: A black and gory business, is now available. Next to last chapter!

Raise the Gipper! Temporary freedom!: Chapter 17: A black and gory business:

Well, it's a longish chapter, and after this there's just one more chapter to go. In every story with a zombie, there must be a zombie slayer.

And at least since Beowulf, stories with monsters usually have monster slayers. This is the chapter where you find out who is who.  

There's also some occasional, brief discussion of comic theory as applied to the ending, and economic theory as applied to moose-grinding

Raise the Gipper! Chapter 16: Where the lightning strikes

Raise the Gipper!  Chapter 16: Where the lightning strikes

This and the previous chapter were fun because something I've always enjoyed, as an actor and writer and director, is trying to catch the rhythms of speech of individuals, and I got to write in several voices that were fun:

Reagan the exasperated zombie: 

 They were all upset because, when he’d gone up to the convention tonight, he’d left the eleven mostly-headless, mostly-drained-of-blood bodies there in the meat locker, merely calling the concierge’s desk and telling them to have the mess cleaned up by the time he got back.
Apparently some of the eleven had been real people rather than just any old minions. Most had been interns from the Ivies and Stanford; the blonde girl had interned the summer before with Justice Clarence Thomas, who had had several pet nicknames for her; three of them had been children of congressmen, two of governors, and one of a three-star general; the red-headed woman and the tall Asian, who had just passed his bar exam, had been engaged for a marriage to ally a major media player with some genuine Charleston old money.
Or in short, those had not been just anyone’s heads and he should not have eaten them without permission, and bobbada bop bop, doo dah. Undeath was a lot like life, people were always calling you up to tell you what you shouldn’t have done, and totally missing the point, and expecting you to listen to it all.
When the little delegation of Gipper-wranglers had run out of energy, Reagan said, “Look, did you bring me back to save our party and our country and put things back on the right track, or to follow every little petty rule and remember who every little trivial person is? Besides, you can replace all eleven of them overnight with almost exactly identical people. We have a whole chain of douchebag factories in the prep schools and the Ivy League to turn out more of them, and if we need older ones with gray hair there’s the whole finance industry and old-line corporate law to pull them out of."

Sarah Palin when she has grasped a critical concept:

Got to have that settled before we can really be comfortable working together, that’s what I have to tell him. I mean, some of those kids’s families are important, and I just know in my heart, if someone would’ve drank Track’s blood and then ate his head too, I’d be…well. Mad. Good and mad. Ron better not have done that to anybody’s daughters and sons, because as a mother myself, I can say if that’s what he did, I’ll have to give him a piece of my mind. A real big piece of my mind. He says he wants me to give the campaign vision, but if he did this Chompgate thing I am going to show him a whole lot of things he’d rather not see.
“Penny for your thoughts, hon,” Todd said, from the chair where he was leafing idly through Field and Stream.
“Do you know,” she said, “since Larry explained about literally and figuratively, I can’t get it out of my head that I might have used both words wrong a lot of times, in public, without realizing it?”

Rick Santorum mommying up and finding the strength to have a painfully necessary conversation:

Not quite sure what he was going to do, he walked into the church, approaching to within a few feet of the bishop, noticing that the people in the church were beginning to whisper to each other as they recognized him. Good. Witnesses. He smiled and drew a deep breath.
“We gotta talk, Your Excellency. I’m pregnant.”
The man froze and his jaw dropped.
“I’m pregnant,” Santorum repeated. “About six weeks along. There’s no one else it could be, before you ask. Now we need to talk.”
The silence dragged on for a long time till the bishop stammered, “I haven’t consecrated the bread yet.”
“Then there’s no problem at all. I mean with the Mass. They can just start it over. Call in a substitute and you and I will go to your office.” Santorum realized he was probably the only comfortable person in the room. I hope this won’t take too long. I’d like to get back to Karen, and be with the kids, and…well, have a whole life.
His face felt funny, and then he realized it was an unforced smile.

And the way Fox News deals with it when a right wing hero does something bad, i.e. the victim had it coming and it was a public service:

...after tying Joe to witchcraft, they moved on to do a quick “lifestyle report” about the eleven young Republican staffers whose heads had been eaten. It seemed to be a summary of their Facebook profiles, arrest records, and whatever their colleges and prep schools would divulge. Several young men were willing to say that both the young women were known to be very promiscuous, and furthermore, one looked just like a girl who had been on Girls Gone Wild. Two of the young men, according to a minister/counselor who had looked at their biographies, were probably gay. There were three busts for pot, one for X, and one for prescription drugs. According to Fox, all of them drank a great deal.
One young man had been photographed with his arm around a girl and his hand over her breast, four of them had attended law school, thus becoming one “private-practice attorney, the exact nature of whose practice we don’t know”, and three “drop-outs” and they had all been working for career politicians.
Solemnly, the pale blonde woman on the screen intoned, “We just thought it was important to give our viewers the other side. No one denies that eating people’s heads is wrong, at least if it is done without their consent, and of course the investigations need to continue because if the former president did indeed eat all these people’s heads, and they can be proven not to have consented to it, then there are things that as a society of laws we need to do about it, although our legal experts have informed me that it is not clear whether, technically speaking, a person who is already dead can commit a felony, nor whether, if they do, executing an already dead person would or would not constitute double jeopardy. So legally it’s very complex.”

Aura, a practical-minded contemporary young woman, facing up to the dreadful fact that her cat has already figured out, that she is in love with a Republican:

Aura set about getting ready for bed, interrupted by a very disturbed Mr. Fuzzy, who kept meowing at the front door. “I bet you want to be with Nimrod,” she said.
“I think you even recognize his name. Nimrod?”
“Well, not tonight. Probably early in the morning, we’ll go over and make sure they’re okay. Meanwhile, there’s cat food you don’t have to compete for.”
Though he ate, Mr. Fuzzy didn’t seem nearly as interested in his food as usual. Aura brewed herbal tea, and sat down to run through some variations on the Tarot, but kept losing her place; when the tea was ready, she ate in bed, trying to read, sipping the tea, and occasionally telling Mr. Fuzzy to get away from the goddam door because he wasn’t going anywhere tonight.

 For the record, let me say, I was once in love with a Republican myself.  And I did eat her brain. But I faced up to the fact, later, that it was a bad thing, and in a painfully necessary way, I explained to everyone that  it was entirely her fault.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Raise the Gipper!: Chapter 15: more dangerous to his friends than his...

Raise the Gipper! Chapter 15: more dangerous to his friends than his...:

Among other things, this chapter features pink slime, Sarah Palin dialogue, a lovelorn zombie, and the moment when the Evil Bug is fully converted (the full conversion of thousands of moose and polar bears is hinted at, but does not occur in this chapter).

The Next Greatest Generation, Snowplows Versus Helicopters, Cow Ponies versus Thoroughbreds, and Multiple Ramblings

Actually"And Multiple Ramblings" really should be the title of my blog, but I like "Approachably Reclusive" enough to stick with it.

Anyway, let us ramble on multiply, or multiply the ramblings:

Until TobiasBuckell (a writer whose stuff you should read if you haven't yet) tweeted thispiece by Sierra at The Phoenix and Olive Branch, I'd been unaware of her blog. I've rarely found a more interesting writer on the web; after you read the long and very interesting piece I've linked to, be sure to browse around a bit in her other writing.

Sierra was responding to something that got some highly predictable coverage and reactions at the time: this spring, a high school teacher at Wellesley High School, David McCullough, delivered a commencement speech in which he told the students that they weren't actually all special and particularly wonderful, but in fact pretty much like all the other graduating classes out there, and that the adults who had told them they were super wonderful special people were mostly lying. There was an immediate pile-on of comments, which could be summarized as Yeah, Those Gen Ys Are Spoiled Entitled Brats With Helicopter Parents and Nothing Like We Were, And They Need to Be Told We Don't Like Them.

Sierra points out, very clearly, that there are a large number of things wrong here. The first and most important is that to the extent that high school students think they are special and wonderful (they also tend to think that they are disgusting and worthless; that dial has a big jump in it at eighteen*) it is because they have been told they are, and they didn't tell themselves that. Their idiot parents and teachers did.

Furthermore, she points out, unfortunately their parents were very clear about the instrumental nature of their You are so!!! wonderful!!! messages. Many kids, especially those with actual ability, figured out that they hadn't done anything brilliant, or even worthy of note, or even anything (student of mine ages ago, asked about something on his resume, shrugged and said, "I used to watch my tutor do it. They said it was the same as experience.")

Thus the large majority of Millennials—not being total gulls despite the best efforts of their parents and teachers—perceived with full clarity that their parents were lying to them for the sake of their self-esteem, which at the time was believed to be sort of the Vitamin E of the soul, without which the kids could not possibly succeed brilliantly and carry out their duty of being little ornaments to their parents' vanity. The self-esteem, in short, was not even really for the selves doing the esteeming; even their self-esteem was for their parents.

The parents then enforced all this constant proud and meaningless babble on coaches, teachers, and everyone else, Sierra points out. The kids didn't insist on being constantly praised because they couldn't; kids don't choose how adults are going to treat them. Genetically they were the same as any other generation; they would have responded to Victorian Muscular Christianity or Stalinist Hero Worker propaganda just like an Edwardian Boy Scout or a 1930s Young Pioneer. The message was chosen for them. If they overdosed on self-esteem, it was their parents who bullied and harassed everyone else into giving it to them.

It is therefore absolutely unfair to the Millennials to complain that they have an exaggerated idea of their abilities and entitlement. They didn't give it to themselves. They didn't ask for it. They're just stuck with it as a psychological burden to get over if they can.
Or in the words of a hit song that is 99 years old: "you made me what I am today / I hope you're satisfied."**

Sierra goes further, but I think not far enough, in pointing out that anyway this is largely a class-based issue; the super-entitled super-self-esteemed are only a small fraction of the whole generation. Most of the Millennials were not coddled and pushed by super-affluent helicopter parents.

Let me digress to explain why I prefer the term snowplow parents:
1. they clear and smooth out everything in the path
2. their spawn thus pass easily through territory that is slippery, difficult, or dangerous for others,
3. as a side benefit in parental control, this makes it very hard for the spawn to leave the path, and
4. as a massive side benefit to both parents and children, the plow clears the snow by piling it up in front of other people's driveways or against their cars, thus making it much more difficult for those who don't have snowplows for them to get onto the path.
In short, snowplow parents is a better term than helicopter parents because whereas a helicopter is merely hovering about to rescue the kiddies at the first sign of trouble, a snowplow simply restructures the world around them so there's never a need for rescue, and does so at the expense of anyone who doesn't have their own snowplow. (I know a couple of elementary school teachers who refer to inter-parent clashes over the entitled spawn as snowplow collisions and I figure I'll use that in a story sometime).

But the true and genuine Children of the Snowplow who are so fond of themselves and so annoy their elders are a very small fraction of their generation: the fraction that is going to elite private colleges, will mostly go to grad school, and is going to be cozily slotted into the high-end corporate/nonprofit/academic/government merry-go-round, in which they will pretend to run things because they are superbly qualified and the world will be snowplowed to smoothness and convenience in front of them because that is what a hereditary aristocracy gets.*** (Most of them will not go into anything as old-fashioned and crude as the military-industrial complex since both the military and industry, which deal in their different ways with the physical world, are hopelessly déclassé.)

The supersupportivemommies and the caringdaddies did not entitle and overpraise the whole generation of Millennials; they overpraised the small coterie of their own children into a sense of entitlement, and set up a mixture of real and bogus achievements to reinforce that, but they did their best to rob the rest, making sure the playing field was anything but level. Consider the number of high-end entry-level jobs for which it is de rigeur to have had a couple of internships. In many industries, nearly all such internships are unpaid, so that the kid who has to earn an actual paycheck over the summer by scooping ice cream or cleaning pools is out of the game entirely compared to the one whose résumé clearly indicates that most important ability: the ability to have parents pay all his/her expenses in another city all summer long. Look at the way in which college applications are evaluated extensively on extracurriculars at the same time that fees for high school extracurriculars are exploding; can you see a better way to keep the riffraff out?

Make no mistake, the snowplow parents, unlike the legendary idle rich of old, did not raise their children into the sort of cultivated uselessness that we might associate with Holden Caulfield or My Man Godfrey; the skids were greased and the way was smoothed, but the kids were largely expected to perform within the narrow scope of their failure-proofed danger-deleted lives, and so, much like a racing thoroughbred, they can run a quarter mile oval really, really well. Esthetically I prefer a smart, working cow pony, but if you want to win a race, you get that thoroughbred, and as the system is now set up, you get paid to win races, not to know about rattlesnakes and gopher holes, know when to take up slack on a roped steer, and find your way back to camp while the cowboy sleeps in the saddle.

So much for the thoroughbreds, but just because I kind of like them for esthetic reasons of my own, what about all the cow ponies who are actually going to do something useful, as opposed to run in circles for people with the money and time to watch them? The vast majority of Millennials who grew up without much attention or money in single-parent or both-parent-working homes probably were told regularly that they were great, wonderful kids because it didn't cost anything, it helped to keep them (and their parents) quiet, and most of all because boosting self-esteem was a near-religion at the time. Meanwhile, though, the system as a whole was constructed to put those kids in their place -- standing in the heaped up driveway, watching the pampered thoroughbreds of the snowplow parents gallop on by, or if they were really determined, trying to pick or kick their way through to the cleared path. And they probably absorbed a bit of both the self-esteem message and the not-for-you message, but quickly learned which one to take seriously.

The ironic joke that is not at all funny that tops all this off is that the vast majority who were shafted at the starting gate are now being stereotyped and blamed for the character defects of the kids who received the fruits of the Great Shafting.

Well, that has gone somewhat beyond Sierra's point, but if it hadn't, I could've just posted the link. Anyway, the reactions on Sierra's blog have been particularly predictable, which makes me feel even better about not having comments on mine (as always, if you really have to tell me something, shoot me an email via the link at right; you might want to review the Ten Form Letters first, and if you can predict which one you'll get, save yourself the trouble). Responses to Sierra's essay sort out to:
1. I'm a Millennial and you're right.
2. I faced less difficulty than you did as a child, and you are a whiny ungrateful little bitch.
3. I am a Boomer and I need to tell you about how this article made me feel, because everything is always all about how the Boomers feel.
4. Of course you're an entitled little snot, and it's because you weren't brought up eating lead paint and riding a bicycle without a helmet. Now get off my lawn.

Now, once again, go back to that link, click on it, and read it how Sierra said it, because she does a better job than I'm doing here, and since she is a Millennial, she didn't bend the message the way I did. Meanwhile, though, I think there's a reality everyone is missing. Let me start with a shocking thought:

Generations don't make themselves. Events do.

For individuals, I don't buy the idea that adversity cultivates virtue. Virtuous people use whatever life they get to cultivate virtue; soft lives don't necessarily make rotten people, nor hard lives good people. Some of the nicest, most interesting, most worthwhile people I know are humanities faculty in colleges and universities, which is pretty much the ultimate soft job, and were trust fund babies. Some of the most genuine scum I've known have clawed their way to the top at some of the toughest jobs there are. The hardscrabble dirt farmer, born behind the eight ball and never able to get out, may use all of the little bit of spare time he has to abuse and torment every living thing he can get his hands on, particularly his children; the cosseted and pampered teacher's pet may, and often will, discover that conscious gentleness and grace toward everyone makes her feel joyful in a way that nothing else does. People construct themselves out of their experiences, but there's a wide range of choice in what they choose to make, and almost any experience can be the basis of a fine person.

Generations, however, are another matter.

First a catch-up paragraph for those of you who have never encountered this before: about eighty years of study of social statistics have clearly shown that generations are a real phenomenon, that there are occasional sudden, sharp changes in values, behaviors, interests, etc. every 15-25 years that punctuate the stream of people being born all the time into distinct groups, within which people are strongly similar to their littermates.**** With survey data, marketing research, and all the other paraphernalia we can find them and mark them. If you're one of those people who "don't believe" in generational effects because "everyone is individual," go look up the work and learn something, or stay the ignorant putz you are; it doesn't matter, as the generations will be there whether you believe in them or not. (As Philip K. Dick pointed out, that's one of the distinguishing characteristics of reality -- still being there when you don't believe in it).

An odd fact that I've seen dozens of explanations for, but never an explanation that I really buy, is that the generational divides fall very neatly at the points where the birth rate goes above or below replacement. The GI generation that we call the "Greatest Generation" in the US was born about 1908-28, all years (except 1918) when the birth rate exceeded replacement; births were below replacement from late 1928 till early 1946, producing the Silents; the Boomers, of course, are named for the 1946-65 demographic pig in the python they formed; the X generation was born in the 1966-78 birth rate collapse, the Millennials in the 1978-95 echo boom, and we've had a birth dearth most of the time since.*****

All right, that's the generations. We hear all the time that the GI generation now dying out in their 80s and 90s (the youngest are 84) were the Greatest Generation, and to be honest, it's not an undeserved designation. The oldest of them sweated out trying to get jobs in the Depression, worked for college if they got any, and often had to be family support for parents or younger siblings; all but the very youngest of them were of draft age for World War II******. They came home and achieved hitherto-unknown levels of education under the GI Bill. GI-gens were most of the leadership of the Civil Rights movement in the critical 1948-65 period when the nation went from officially segregated to officially integrated. They built the ships that went to the moon (which were flown by Silents; the Boomers stayed home and watched on TV, of which more anon). They developed and deployed television and computers, supplied the street forces for the great wave of unionization and the first leaders for the revived feminist and environmental movements, and also for the Goldwater and Reagan conservatives ... it's quite a list. The GI Generation made the world we live in.

They also got a really, truly, suck-dog-awful start. And not just because they emerged from (often too little) schooling into either the biggest depression or the biggest war in modern times. They also had a curiously familiar seeming upbringing: the few of them in the upper classes were the first victims of progressive schooling (i.e make the special snowflakes happy at the expense of teaching them) and Freudianism (how you feel about your winkie or your shithole is Miz Teacher's business and is very important). The overwhelming majority of the rest got such schooling as they did in dull, rather prison-like warehouses (though admittedly safe and quiet ones compared to many today), pushed through standardized lessons without particular accommodations for individuals, and mostly allowed to sink into quiet failure before drifting out into dead-end jobs.

Does any of that sound familiar, by any chance?

It is pretty frequently, as in nearly always, forgotten that the GI/"Greatest" Generation were treated with a mixture of neglect, smothering, overindulgence and bad psychology at the top and plain old neglect and repressive misery at the bottom. They were not well-prepared or trained, either as leaders or as followers, and by the late 1920s sensible people, looking at These Kids Today, were in deep despair about them. The "rising generation is a bunch of inept slackers who expect the world" piece was as much a staple of Collier's or the Saturday Evening Post of 1928 as it is of the blogosphere today.

Then the not-then-named generation emerged into a massive shitstorm, and ... surprise. They grew. They turned out to be bigger than it was. They built another world to replace the one that had been torn apart, and if enormous numbers of things were unattractive about 1993 (when the last of them hit retirement age), it was still one big buttload of a better time than 1926 (when the first of them graduated from high school).

Adversity doesn't make people, and neither does success or prosperity or ease; that's individual. Adversity sorts a generation; presented with do or die, some will do, some will luck out, some will die, and some will die trying. Tough times and the shitstorms of history sort in the doers (and the lucky) and sort out the diers (some of whom are just unlucky, or were great people in other ways but just weren't up to the challenges that landed on them). Adversity doesn't select perfectly or even well, but it selects, and what is left after the last screen is better, on the average, than what went into the grinder.

Notice, too, that most of the shitstorm that the GI-gens slogged through was not of their making. They were not the ones who refused the difficult job of peacemaking. They didn't turn the economy into a big dumb casino, wring it dry, and leave people who had never participated in the win to pay for the loss. They didn't dither down the road to war, neither preparing nor peacemaking because either would have been costly and difficult. They inherited the bitter and spoiled fruits of all that but it was not their making.

Sound familiar?

So here's a contrarian forecast: the Millennials are either going to be a great generation, or the biggest flop in history, and for once, that's not just a matter of how it feels for them to be young right now. That's a simple reality:
1. They've been ill-prepared, by an education whose purpose was neither to free them to make their own choices (the real meaning of "liberal" education) nor to call them to needed and necessary work (the real meaning of "vocational" education); by the application of psychological theories whose main purpose was the convenience and self-gratulation of the adults around them; by having their minds and hearts offered up to commercial interests when they were too young to defend themselves.

2. They will be taking the handoff for  hard choices that have not been faced; the world has been loosely but jealously held in the grip of the All-About-Us-And-There's-No-One-Else-Here Boomers******* for twenty years or so, and my generation have not led, have not followed, and have not gotten out of the way. Eventually the world will have to be pried from their grabby little fingers, grimier and more run-down, but unfixed.

3. Therefore: An ill-prepared but large generation that has mostly had to look after itself, despised and worried over by its elders, is facing a truly massive incoming shitstorm.

Sound familiar?

What they make of it, well, that's going to be all them. They didn't get much help from me or any Boomer. But there's a decent chance that around about 2070, generations yet unborn will be looking at the Millennials and saying, "Damn! They sure were something! How the hell are we going to get along without them?" or the equivalent "There were giants in the earth in those days."
(That, by the way, might not make a bad science fiction setting; as the Millennials are passing from the scene, the next generation to step up might well feel some of the trepidation that the Boomers did when the GIgen started to thin out—the grownups are going away! Who's going to take care of us?)

There is not the slightest chance anyone will feel any such thing about the Boomers, or Gen X. The generational markers for places and events (Woodstock, Watergate, whatever) will die with those generations; but places and events coming in the next few years, which will have Millennial fingerprints on them, might linger in the way that the Bulge or Sputnik have.

Hope you do it, guys. Sorry we weren't more help.


*The biggest point Sierra misses, probably because she is not yet a grouchy old teacher with a long experience of graduating classes, is that nearly every graduating student thinks his/her class is made up either of the shining hope of humanity or the last degenerate gasp of a worthless species; it's one of the hazards of being eighteen, as the always-worth-reading John Cheese points out at Cracked.comThat belief is also one of the hazards of being twenty-two and nowadays it's rather frequently a hazard of being thirty. In the famous beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens is talking at least as much about youth as about revolution.

** I think of that song as possibly the earliest emo ever; talk about psycho-blaming!)

*** Seethis excellent forum in the Chronicle of Higher Education. There are myriad ways in which education has been bent in the last two generations so that the supposedly meritocratic academic system of elite colleges, and the extensive preparation and testing that supports it, has become an engine for replicating class privilege fully as effective as the English public schools or the old Imperial Mandarinate examinations. Note that the commenters who dismiss the problem overwhelmingly do so because they think the hereditary caste deserves its privileges because it does so well in school.

****Specifically, it is much more likely that two Baby Boomers or two Silents (for example) will share characteristics than that a mixed pair will, even if the co-generationals are much farther apart in age than the mixed pair; Bobby Boomer (born 1947) and Brenda Boomer (born 1961) are much more likely to be alike in their beliefs, life narratives, values, and so forth than Brenda is to be like Xena Xer (born 1966) or Bobby is like Sam Silent (born 1941). Note again that these are averages and probabilities; another privilege of not enabling comments is that there will now not be dozens of notes from people who were born in 1955 but adore Sinatra and/or Pink. Averages, guys, averages. That's what cultures are.

*****The high school class of 2013 are the last Millennials, or nearly so. If any people out there is thinking of naming the next lot "Generation Z", I would suggest that we find those people and start stoning them now. The About to Be Named Generation can thank us later.

******They do not, however, have the most combat time per individual member of the generation; that distinction belongs to the Silents, who were a much smaller generation than the ones on either side of them, and were the backbones of two very large wars and a host of small brushfires between. It always seems to me that we neglect one possible reason for why the Silents were so Silent: extremely widespread PTSD coupled with a boom economy, so that large numbers of the men were emotionally shattered and then all but instantly given the traditional house/wife/job/kids complex to take care of, and did what a stressed-out man with huge responsibilities does: shut up and got busy. The amount of hidden pain under that will almost certainly never be known, but a fair estimate would be "more than you can imagine."

******Some people will complain that since I was born in 1957, and am therefore a Boomer, I have no business saying such things. To which I respond that I prefer being in the Resistance to being a collaborator, and as for my opinion of my generation, don't even try to feed me the crap they write, film, sing, etc. about themselves; I know who the Boomers really are. I went to high school with some of those clowns, I went to college with more of them, I've been on many jobs with them, and I've been listening to their shitty music since I was a teenager. It is an eternal irritation that I can't seem to be more of a generational traitor than I already am.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Raise the Gipper! Chapter 14: The small cramped dark inside, is up

Raise the Gipper! Temporary freedom!: Chapter 14: The small cramped dark inside:

This one features some quite literal eating of the rich, a Santorum family quarrel, Santorums on the run in disguise, and the first on-screen appearance of Sarah Palin; the least you can do is read it, my brain hurt for days after trying to write like she talks.

This evening, the convention programming—which everyone kept pointing out had three times the audience of Obama’s record-breaking 2008 acceptance speech—was one long vamp until Reagan could make another appearance. The ice arena had been covered with carpet but the deck above it had been removed, so that the space was close to freezing, but the bright lights were on, and clouds formed and billowed in the upper reaches of the Forum. Everywhere, there were little mini-demonstrations, cheering fests, and general noisemaking by people who wanted to be on camera for the people back home.
Every few minutes the newscasters would remind anyone who might have been in a coma for the last couple of days that the newly risen Ronald Reagan would be arriving just after sunset, and that the hunt for the Santorums was still on.
But most of the time was taken up with the Draft Palin movement. Handmade PALIN-VP signs had appeared everywhere a few hours ago, and not long after there had been printed ones.
Crowds wandered through the aisles, obsessively singing:
Ron Reagan’s body lay a-mouldering in the grave,
And Mitt was lame, and Paul was nuts, and Newt would not behave,
But there were weapons to spend money on and forests left to pave,
So his corpse came shambling back!
All he needs is Sarah Palin,
All he needs is Sarah Palin,
All he needs is Sarah Palin,
Since his corpse came shambling back! 

MTV had latched onto a Palin-themed beach party. It featured American flag bikinis and Palin wigs and glasses on busty women, grinding on buff men in Reagan masks. The History Channel was promoting a documentary with the teaser, “Did Hitler Plan to Conquer Alaska with Zombie Stormtroopers?” Fox News reported epidemics of fainting and the vapors. MS-NBC covered a Westboro Baptist Church demonstration with signs that read GOD HATES ZOMBIES TOO.

Raise the Gipper! Chapter 13: Conspiracies against the laity, is up. Three entangled little love stories

Joe and Aura are having a very satisfactory lunch date, demonstrating a message for all young men: always take her someplace where the waiter is on your side.

Reagan can't get Nancy on the phone:
The tears of a zombie,
When he can't get his Mommy.

And things are very difficult in the Santorum household because, well, there's this medical discovery ... the denial phasebegins the chapter:

The doctor had huge white teeth, which he was using to smile like an exceptionally stupid skull, an impression reinforced by his shiny shaved head. “Well,” he said, “It’s no bad news at all. Right there in the blood test and the vitals, Mrs. Santorum. You and the Senator—and of course, we all hope and pray, the Vice President, soon—are about to be parents again. I’m sure you’ve been through all the drill before. I’ll want to get an ultrasound, but you can stop worrying—”
“You’re saying the blood work came up positive for pregnancy?” Santorum asked.
Something in his tone must have shaken the doctor out of his too-cool-to-treat-celebs-differently-from-anyone-else heartiness. “Is something wrong?”
“You might say that,” Santorum said. “Yes, you just might say that. That blood sample was from me.”
“Yeah.” Santorum rolled up his sleeve. “Better get someone in here to take another one, and this time, don’t get it mixed up with someone else’s. For your information, if this one comes up pregnant, or if it says I have Dutch elm disease, that won’t be right either.”
“Right away, yeah,” the doctor said, and hurried out without meeting Santorum’s eyes.
“It’s all Obamacare,” Santorum muttered. “If he hadn’t totally socialized medicine in this country, doctors like this guy wouldn’t be able to get a veterinarian license.”

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Raise the Gipper! Chapter 11: A rosary of pain, is up. And I'm pleasantly surprised by it

Raise the Gipper! Temporary freedom!: Chapter 11: A rosary of pain

Everything is so accelerated with this book; wrote it in two months flat for a situation that will only last a few months (in fact it changed some as I worked, and I've noticed a few inconsistencies due to that).  And because in a sort of weird way I kind of direct, design, and act my books (scenes in my novels I approach like a theatre guy, it's just how I do it) I have the same tendency that keeps actors, designers, and directors sane: I forget as soon as I'm done.  (A successful actor who remembered all his lines from all his plays, movies, and TV shows would be a very strange sort; actor memory for scripts is like a sort of longer term version of  "waitress memory" for orders).  So I had pretty much forgotten Chapter 11, and was delighted to find out that the Sabatini quote, which is from the most over the top scenery-chewing Evil Pirate in a pirate novel EVER, was at the front of what's actually a pretty lively chapter; sparks fly between Joe the Tea Partier and Aura the Occupier, Josh explains several things about the nature of the Divine that make sense to me anyway, there's quite a bit of really weird violence, and a nice out and out zombie versus evil bat-like space alien brawl.  AND the moral question about whether it would be okay to torture an evil space bat if you were already a damned soul anyway, in order to save all life on Earth, is explored in a way that I think many writers have overlooked, possibly because most of the ones who write about the fate of life on Earth don't write about zombies and evil space bats.

Anyway, as you can probably tell, I was very pleased to find out how much fun it was turning out to be, especially since I could barely remember writing it (but I did, in one ferocious rush on March 24, according to my work diary.) 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Raise the Gipper! : Chapter 10: Bound to non-play, is up and available

Raise the Gipper! Temporary freedom!: Chapter 10: Bound to non-play

Not much to say here except there's a certain amount of goofy violence and the only scene set in the White House.  May add more details later, must run.