Thursday, June 13, 2019

Grading Across State Lines

I spent the last week down in Louisville grading AP exams, which is a strange way to spend some of your summer vacation but there were about 1700 of us so there is some safety in numbers I suppose.  It’s a long drive, but it was better than trying to squeeze in a short flight and probably faster when you figure in all the things you have to do just to get onto a plane these days.

They put us up in a giant hotel right on the Ohio River, about two blocks from the convention center.  I spent most of my time shuttling back and forth between those two places, so I can’t really tell you much of what Louisville is like beyond that.

They did throw us out into the city for dinner one night and my roommate’s former student had recommended a barbecue place called Momma’s Mustard, Pickles, & BBQ so we found it – it’s way out in a nice little neighborhood, far from the downtown area – and had a marvelous meal, undoubtedly the best one I had in my time there.  On the way back we stopped at a place called The Manhattan Project – mostly for the name, I’ll confess – and sampled some bourbons because that’s what one does in Louisville.  They were good bourbons, in good company.  Plus, the waitress let me keep a menu to show my students next time we do the atomic bomb class, so win all around.

For those of you who have not had the pleasure of grading APUSH exams, it’s quite a process.  They train you pretty hard the first day since consistency is critical, but then they just keep bringing you folders full of essays and you grade and grade and grade and they spot-check you here and there but after a while they mostly figure you’ve got it.  And you do.  My total for the week was 778 essays, which was pretty good for a new guy, I was told.  Not up to the veterans, but there you go.

I liked my tablemates – they were friendly people.  A mix of high school teachers (all of whom teach the APUSH class), college teachers like me, and graduate students, we all got along fine.  My table leader was supportive and good to us.  The runners who brought us the folders full of exams were nice as well.  And my hotel roommate was a lot of fun – whoever paired us up did a bang-up job of it. 

Still not sure I’ll do it again next year, but I gather that’s a common reaction to the process.  It really is a grinding thing to grade essays for a week solid.  Ask me in January.

You’re not allowed to talk about specific essays in a public forum like this one – even if you take out the identifying details – because really, they’re kids and you shouldn’t be doing that to kids.  The part I ended up grading is, for most of them, the last thing they do on an exam that has lasted all morning and which comes at the end of a year-long class designed specifically to take this exam.  It is, as my statistics professor once described the process of putting final edits on a textbook, “the very end of the very end of a reasonably horrible process.”

So no details.

But there were a few general things I learned during this process, things not connected to any particular essay, and I figure those are mine to share. 

1. When I am Grand Vizier of Creation, one of my first actions – not in the first month, but up there on the agenda somewhere – will be to impose mandatory penmanship classes. 

2. If I remember only one thing about the grading process it will likely be my ID number, which I had to write down and then fill in bubbles for on every score sheet.  It got to the point where I’d put the number down in the slot for my name and have to go back and erase it.

3. Somewhere last month there was a sale on scratchy black pens, and most of them were purchased by high school students across the country.

4. Sometimes you look at an essay that’s about [Not The Question] and you think to yourself, “Well, they’re not wrong…”

5. My next band will be named “John Locke and the Social Contract.”

6. The exams come grouped by school and you can really tell when a teacher has a catch phrase.  Students remember.

7. Benjamin Franklin was a man of many talents, some of which probably would have come as a surprise to him if we’re being honest here.

I also learned a few things about Louisville itself while I was there.

1. There is good food in Louisville if you get far enough away from the convention center.

2. The place is famous for its bourbon for good reason, too.  Oh yes, those were tasty.

3. Downtown Louisville is not good for pedestrians.  Drivers there don’t really watch out for you.  No, no they do not.

4. On the other hand, if you get a chance to walk around downtown Louisville you might as well take it.  There are some interesting buildings and artwork, and you just might decide to get a closer look at a particular statue in a public plaza and stumble across a photographer and two topless models working on a project.  I’m not sure if this is something that happens all the time in Louisville, but it certainly brightened the day for me and my roommate.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Pride and Privilege

So it’s Pride Month.

There is a part of me that has never quite understood the whole notion of Pride events.  You are who you are.  You should be okay with that.  Why do you need a parade and a manifesto?

The part of me that doesn’t understand all that?  That part of me is what we call “the privileged part.” 

Because when you get right down to it, I am pretty much the poster child for privilege in this country.  I’m a straight white middle-class cis-male, more or less able bodied, well educated, reasonably articulate, at least nominally a member of the dominant religion, and conversant in all of the major sports to some degree or another. 

The thing about privilege is that it makes things easier.  Doors are open for me that aren’t open to others.  Most of the people with power in this country look more like me than not.  If there is a doubt to get the benefit of, that benefit will be mine.

Perhaps most tellingly, I never have to explain myself to anyone.  I never have to justify my existence to anyone.  I am, in fact, the default standard by which people are judged in this country.

And just for the record, you have no idea how goofy I find that notion, living inside my head the way I do.

But there it is. 

The simple fact is that I don’t need a Pride event because nobody has ever told me that I shouldn’t be proud of what I am.  Nobody has ever tried to make me feel bad about what I am and they wouldn’t succeed if they did because that’s the armor privilege gives to you.

There are far too many people in this country who cannot say that.  Whose lives are made more difficult because of the privilege afforded to me.

There are far too many people in this country who are constantly being told that they should feel bad about who they are because of what they are.  Because they’re not straight.  Because they’re not white.  Because they’re not middle class.  Because they’re not cis-males.  Because they’re not privileged.  Because they’re not, well, one or more of any number of damn-fool criteria that the simpleminded use to define themselves as Not Them.

Fuck that.  There is no Them.  There is only Us, in all of our diversity.

This is a lesson that we seem to be doing our best to forget here in this petit-Fascist time we live in, when the political and cultural war on being female, being poor, being non-white, being anything other than the cardboard cutout poster child that I am is in full swing.

It’s a costly forgetting, one measured in lives.  People die because of this, and this fact should never be forgotten.  People die because they are told they don’t matter, in ways large and small, every day of their lives, until they believe it themselves or until some idiot decides to believe it for them and acts on that.

Yeah, no.

So it’s Pride Month.

And for whatever it may be worth to anyone, I say good for that.  It’s not really my call to make, of course.  But good for that anyway.

If you are being told that you don't matter because you are not precisely like the privileged, know that this is pure unadulterated nonsense.  You are loved as you are.  You matter as you are.

It’s Pride Month.  Be proud.

Friday, May 31, 2019

News and Updates

1. The semester seems to have come to an end without any noticeable drop in frantic activity, which is both a nice thing in that it means I will be employed and earning money this summer (not a guarantee for anyone in the academic world) and a difficult thing since it means there will be no particular reduction in stress or the general “beating back the alligators” mindset that one adopts to get through the year.

2. Much of the stress comes from the fact that Home Campus is in the middle of several different transitions right now, each of which could, on its own, occupy the full attention of everyone on campus.  They’re all getting managed at the moment with only the expected levels of crisis so that’s a good sign, but still.

3. It’s already too warm for me.  August will not be my time, I imagine.  Seriously – I’m going to retire to Scotland for the weather.

4. The turkeys are out and about now, though – they like it warm.  I spent a chunk of yesterday fixing up their outside enclosure and they were eager to get to it.  You can’t help but love the turkeys.  They scamper about happily exploring their newly expanded world, cooing and chirping (they haven’t reached the stage where they gobble yet), and generally being the stupidest creatures on earth, but amiably so and that has to count for something.

5. Is it a bad sign when a (different) employer finally comes through with the paperwork for a week-long job – paperwork that you have had to ask them for three separate times – and your first reaction to this is just “oh”?  Asking for a friend.

6. Every time I look at the news der Sturmtrumper is doing something that would embarrass a toddler, destroy everything worthwhile about this nation from its economy to its culture to the Constitution itself, and/or weaken US security to the point where it might as well not exist at all.  It’s a sad, sad time to be an American, yes it is.

7. It’s always nice to see your daughter win awards and hear her teachers say good things about her. 

8. I’m trying to dig my office out from under all the paper that accumulated over the last semester or two and all the other things that floated in there on the Stuff Jetstream that eddies through our house.  So far I’ve managed to get exactly one part of that done – I’ve taken the papers (a stack that was literally a meter high) and sorted them.  Half will be recycled, and the other half put away.  Next step: going through the books and deciding how to organize them.  After that, I may attempt to deal with my desk.

9. One of the defining features of being an adult is the ability to procrastinate while remaining entirely productive.

10. Leon Redbone died yesterday and the world is just that much poorer for it.  A moment of silence for a great performer, please.

Friday, May 24, 2019

On Compression and Magic


If you are one of the half dozen people in the world who a) has not yet seen the end of Game of Thrones and b) still has any intention of doing so, you may want to move on to a different post.

Just saying.


“Time is the only magic,” he said. … “Think: If you hurt yourself and I bandage it, and after weeks and weeks it gets well and there’s no scar, that’s not magic at all.  But if you hurt yourself and I touch you and it heals in a moment, you’d call me magic before your skin closed.  It’s not magic to cook a feast, roasting and baking and frying for hours and hours, but if you blink and it’s steaming in front of you, it’s a spell.  If you work for what you want and save for it and plan it out just as precisely as you possibly can, it’s not even surprising if you get it on the other side of a month or a year.  But if you snap your fingers and it happens as soon as you want it, every wizard will want to know you socially.  If you live straight through a hundred years and watch yourself unfold at one second per second, one hour per hour, that’s just being alive.  If you go faster, you’re a time traveler.  If you jump over your unfolding and see how it all comes out, that’s fate.  But it’s all healing and cooking and planning and living, just the same.  The only difference is time.”

        -Catherynne M. Valente

It’s been almost a week now since Game of Thrones came to an end.

While it is true that the series peaked a couple of seasons ago, I confess that I just don’t get the hate and the whinging that has greeted this season in general and the finale in particular.  It’s a show, folks.  It’s designed to entertain, and for the most part it has done so and done it well.

There were parts of this season that I really enjoyed, in fact – the second episode, a quiet sort of reflection on impending death, and one that ended with a truly lovely bit of music, is one of my all-time favorites.  And even the episodes that felt a bit flat – for all of its drama and intensity, the Battle of Winterfell didn’t do a whole lot for me – were fun to watch.  The scene in that episode where the lights of the Dothraki slowly extinguish was a clinic in spare visual storytelling.  I also rather liked three of the four entirely different stories that were forcibly wedged into the finale.

Much of the whinging that has consumed the internet about this season has been focused on the idea that the characters were doing things that didn’t make sense for them to do.  Most of this was aimed at Daenerys morphing into the villain, but she wasn’t the only character being criticized for this.

I’m not sure where these complaints come from, really.  Daenerys turning into the villain has been foreshadowed pretty much from Season 1 – the shift in historical models from the Wars of the Roses to the French Revolution with her as Robespierre has been clear for some time, anyway – and Jon Snow assassinating her seemed well within his character.  It’s pretty much the same obtusely honorable thing he’s always done – the man was never a strategic thinker.  Perhaps the series didn’t need to end precisely the way it did – I was hoping for more from Arya; I think several other characters got lost in the shuffle as well; and if anyone ought to have sat on whatever replaced the Iron Throne it should have been Sansa since she’s the only ruler left who seemed to have put much thought into the logistics of actually governing – but it was never going to end well for most of the characters and given what needed to happen to bring this series to a conclusion I thought the writers did a reasonable job with the events.

The real problem with this season as far as I could tell, and also the previous one if we’re being honest with each other here, is not what happened in it but how quickly it happened. 

They had six episodes to wrap up one of the most sprawling and complex narratives ever attempted on television, and the ruthless pruning and compression that this required meant that a lot of things just sort of happened without really being set up to happen.  They did a lot of “traveling by map,” as the Muppets used to say.  It would have worked better if they had let the story breathe and unfold.

From a story perspective, I would argue that this season really should have been three seasons.  The final episode was a season itself.  If they had done that, they could have kept all of the major story beats the same and not heard anywhere near the volume of complaints that are currently swamping the internet.

The first season should have run from the opening of episode one through the decision to march south on King’s Landing in episode four.  You’ve got a nice arc there – a battle that no longer has to be the Big Central Moment but can serve as a pivot in the story, and then an aftermath that needs to be explained and explored.  What does it mean to win such a battle?  What does that do to the fragile and largely ad-hoc alliances that came together in that moment, now that the moment has passed?  What does it do to your entire culture, which is in some sense predicated on opposition to a force that no longer exists?  The whole thing is going to topple over somehow, but in which direction?  And when?  Will it stay upright long enough to get to the next conflict down in King’s Landing?  How?  The machinations it would have taken to keep things rolling would have been fascinating.  And how are they all going to eat?

In a ten-episode season, the Battle of Winterfell would have been episode five.

The second season would run from the beginnings of the march south through the Battle of King’s Landing.  How does that all work?  How can it hold together?  What’s it like in King’s Landing as the inevitable showdown draws closer?  What’s going in the Iron Islands anyway – did Yara win?  Is she going to go after her uncle or let things work themselves out?  Whatever happened with Jaime on his road to King's Landing, anyway?  The show was good about ending seasons not with the big battle but with the aftermath, but in this case I think it would have been good to end with the fall of King’s Landing.  Get the city to crumble, watch Arya ride off, and leave people hanging until the next season.

The finale, as noted, was the third season all by itself. 

The first part would open with the scenes of devastation in King’s Landing, as the characters walked through the ruined city and tried to come to terms with it – two episodes, perhaps.  That scene with the dragon wings behind Daenerys has to be in there somewhere.  The last beat of this part of the story would be Tyrion throwing away his symbol of office and being led to prison. 

The second part would pick up there and spend several episodes on the new normal in King’s Landing – how do you govern a city you’ve just burned to ashes?  How do you control a city with foreign troops who, frankly, aren’t much interested in or any good at peacekeeping?  George RR Martin spent a lot of time in the books exploring the difference between conquering and ruling, something the show did sporadically throughout its run, and this small fragment of the final produced episode really could have been three episodes without losing momentum.  This is the section where the foreshadowing of the best assassin in Westeros heading out of town on a pale rider could be exploited for real drama.  The last beat of this part of the story would be the assassination, as it all comes crumbling down.  It would not have been the only attempt, and perhaps we could have seen more of some characters who got lost in the finale, but so be it. 

The third part would be the beginning of the final act.  How do you choose a new ruler after all that?  This, to be honest, was the one part of the finale that I really didn’t like.  Not necessarily the result – if it wasn’t going to be Sansa then Bran was about as good a choice as any, I suppose, though not my first choice for either sentiment (who has a better story than Bran?  what?  you want a list?) or continuity within the show (isn’t this the same not-human-anymore who declined to be considered for the Lord of Winterfell?) – but for the compression of it.  “Hey gang, let’s put on a kingsmoot!” is not something that really fits the broader narrative or the way this show has done things, though I can see Tyrion playing a large and wordy part in whatever did eventually happen to make that choice.  Spread this out over three full episodes and the decisions and stakes start to seem natural rather than rushed and forced. 

Once the selection is made and the wheeling and dealing comes to an end, there are consequences to be faced in the fourth and final part of the season – none of which found time to be included in the actual finale.  A great many people will be disappointed with the selection of the new king and they won't just accept it.  How does he mollify or overwhelm them?  What did it actually take to convince the Unsullied and the Dothraki to go back to Essos?  How about we look at all the other characters who seemed to drop off the main stage, now that we've got some time?  What's going on with the newly unpersecuted Wildlings?  And so on.  When all was said and done, then and only then could you send the main characters out into the world like they did on the show, this time with more explanation and justification.  So another two episodes, and suddenly you’ve got a ten-episode season that actually addresses the middle parts of the stories.

Because when you compress a story like the way it was broadcast, it turns into magic.  You get the beginnings of the stories and the conclusions of the stories but not the middles – not the parts that show you the hard work that gets you from idea to payoff.  You snap your fingers and there’s a feast, but no matter how hungry you were at the beginning there’s something terribly hollow in that achievement.  Magic is a lovely thing when it is the subject of the story, but it is a terribly thin and unsatisfying thing when it is the structure of the story.

I understand why they did it the way they did, even if I don’t especially think it worked as well as it could have.

It’s an expensive show to produce.  The actors have been doing this for most of a decade and were either aging out of their parts or just eager to move on to new things.  So were the directors and writers.

And when you think about it, the way it turned out may well have been the point after all.

The thing that made this show – and the books they’re based on – such a cultural moment was that it worked so hard to undermine the standard tropes of the genre, something that became remarkably clear the moment Ned Stark’s head went bouncing down the steps.  And really, to have it end with the realization that all that drama about prophecies and ancestry and so on was just so much subterfuge and that in the end none of it mattered much to the final resolution, that would be the greatest subversion of all.

Not sure that’s what they were going for, but it’s an interesting theory.

People didn’t need to be happy about the way it ended up happening on screen, I suppose, but the sheer nonsense of so many fans signing actual petitions “demanding” that the writers, cast and crew rewrite the final season and reshoot it to their satisfaction is staggering.  Seriously – outside of a New England Patriots victory parade I haven’t seen that level of smug entitlement in years.  Unless you’re willing to pony up the money and volunteer your labor, you have no right to make demands like that on other people’s time and resources.

It’s one thing to say, “this is how I think it could have been done better,” but it’s something else entirely to commandeer people’s lives like that.

I came to the show late, having read the books a few years ago and then started the show sometime last year.  It was a thoughtful show in some ways and an entertaining one in many others, and once I managed to sit through the episodes (no small thing for me these days, though that has nothing in particular to do with any specific show, let alone this one) I enjoyed it.  It had a lot to say.

Plus there hasn’t been a buddy pair like Arya and the Hound in popular culture in years.

But now it has ended, as all things must end.

Valar morghulis.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

What It's About

It’s not about the babies.

It never has been.  It never will be.

If the people currently turning Georgia, Alabama, Ohio, and various other American states into blasphemous theocratic hellholes really gave a rat’s ass about children, their states would look very different. 

They’d have programs in place to make sure that every child gets enough to eat.  To make sure they had decent housing.  To make sure they had the basics of life that are so often lacking in a country with the pre-industrial levels of inequality that we have.

There would in fact be strenuous efforts to avoid those unsustainable gaps in wealth, to create affluence for everyone rather than the favored few, and to make sure that those who benefited most from society did not hoard their good fortune but instead gave back to that society so that others might benefit as well, so that those born might have lives not spent in poverty.

Their school systems would be well-funded, with small class sizes, highly trained and paid teachers respected by the lawmakers who set their budgets, so that every child – not just the privileged ones – had the skills and knowledge to get ahead in this world.  That knowledge would be based in reality, in science and scholarship, not hallucinatory ideology or the worship of the cruelest and least worthy version of a deity that the human mind could engineer.

They’d have healthcare systems that were open to all, not reserved as a privilege for the wealthy, the white, and the well connected, systems that preserve life rather than simply extend it for the privileged and deny it to others.

They’d have strict controls on firearms, particularly automatic, semi-automatic, and high-power weaponry.  There would be no controversy over this, and every time some pathetic loser decided to take out his (almost always his, you notice) shortcomings on the innocent those restrictions would get stricter.  There would only be concern for life.

There would be transparency in criminal justice systems so that children and – radical, I know – even adults would not be railroaded into losing their life’s years on false charges and misapplied punishments.

There would be no enthusiasm about putting brown-skinned Spanish-speaking children in cages for claiming the right of asylum – a right guaranteed by American and international law, by the way, not that laws seem to matter to those who have no moral qualms about ripping children from their families and putting them in cages.

There would be no children who have been raped being deliberately traumatized by being forced to bear their rapist’s baby.  The life of the mother would actually mean something and be protected.

You’ll notice that none of this is true.

That’s because none of those people really give a damn about children at all.  That is not now nor has it ever been the point of the “pro-life” movement.  That movement has always been about controlling women.  About reversing the gains of the feminist movement.  About keeping women poor, ignorant, pregnant, and easily controlled.

It’s about treating women as “hosts” (their word, in fact, and they use it freely if you pay attention) rather than people.  As brood mares.  As anything other than actual human beings with rights of their own.  As anything other than equal citizens.

If you are not blisteringly angry about the way women are being treated in this country then there is no hope for you.

It’s not about the babies.

It never has been.  It never will be.

It’s not about small government either. 

There’s nothing small about a government that can reach directly into the body of a citizen and say, “This part here, that’s not yours anymore.  That belongs to us now and you have no right to control it.” 

That’s totalitarianism, and the fact that it’s dressed up in red, white, and blue and drowned in pretty little buzzwords doesn’t change that.

You want religious totalitarianism?  Go to Iran.  Don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out.

It’s not about the babies. 

It never has been.  It never will be.

It’s not even about reducing abortions.

If it were that, there would be comprehensive, medically sound sex education, designed by doctors who understand the science and implemented by educators who teach rather than indoctrinate. 

There would be safe, effective contraception available for free under that inclusive healthcare system that should have been put in place above.

There would be actual medical knowledge being used to make laws instead of basing public policy on the ignorant ravings of dime-store preachers and the quivering hatreds of the jumped up fools who make up such a large percentage of our current crop of state legislators in the US. 

There would be genuine efforts to punish rapists rather than excuse them, coddle them, and let them go free.

There would be systems in place to hold men responsible for the babies they create, systems that would be rigorously enforced.

There aren't these things in those places.  There aren't any of these things in those places.

It’s not about the babies.

It never has been.  It never will be.

And until you recognize this simple fact you will never understand what it really is about.

Monday, May 13, 2019

One More Shake For the Road

The Dread Pirate Milkshake is no more.

Lauren has been keeping rabbits as one of her 4H projects for almost eight years now.  We’ve had a few of them in that time.  Hazel, who was given to us by friends as a practice bunny and who succumbed to the hot summer of 2012.  Milo, your basic domestic alleyrabbit who literally came with the hutch we bought in the fall of 2011 – he’s not a purebred bunny so we can’t show him at the Fair, but he’s the most sociable of all the rabbits.  Milkshake, whom we got to replace Hazel because Lauren needed a show bunny.  Maybelline, for when Milkshake was no longer qualified for the Fair.  Maybelline and Milkshake had bunlets of their own eventually, and we kept two of them – Keaton and Miley.  Spotnik we gave away, and last we heard he was living a fine life as a companion to a guinea pig somewhere in town.

We got Milkshake back at the beginning of 2013, so he was about six and a half years old when he died – about what these rabbits last, really.  We have no idea how Milo continues to chug along, but it’s nice that he does.

Milkshake became the Dread Pirate Milkshake in 2015 when he got some kind of eye infection and we learned a whole new word – “enucleation,” which if you value your breakfast you will not look up – but after it was all over he had significantly less depth perception than he had when he started.

You learned not to startle him by approaching him from that side.

After that, of course, he wasn’t going to be winning any 4H ribbons so he retired to a nice life in the hutch, eating hay and generally lounging about.

This morning Lauren went out to feed the bunnies before heading off to school and discovered that he was an Ex-Rabbit, poor thing.  No signs of foul play, fortunately.  Just pining for the fjords, metaphorically speaking.

Lauren’s fine.  She knows how these things work.  It’s all part of the cycle.

I buried him in the back, behind the garage, where all the other critters who have gone to their great reward in our care are buried – a raft of turkeys, a few chickens, a couple of stray cats from one hot summer where they kept getting locked in our garage accidentally.  It’s like a Viking graveyard out there, all those little hillocks.

Farewell, sweet bunny.