Archive for April, 2009

Is Academia Outdated?

Monday, April 27th, 2009

Mark C. Taylor, chairman of the religion department at Columbia, seems to think so, at least as it’s currently structured. His New York Times op/ed, “End the University as We Know It,” argues:

Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).

This follows on the heels of similar laments, such as Thomas Benton’s piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go.”

Contained within both articles is the sense that school–particularly graduate school in the humanities–extracts value from students by having them teach intro college classes at low wages while stringing them along with promises of an academic career that will fail to materialize for the majority, all while loading them up with debt.

I think colleges, both undergrad and graduate programs, are going to have to change their emphasis to really show a return on investment to students in years ahead. I think a liberal arts education is a wonderful thing, but it’s hard to justify going tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of dollars into debt to pursue a degree that won’t bring with it a basic standard of living.

Similarly, I think the academic emphasis on a life of the mind–students and faculty cloistered in the pursuit of knowledge–will give way to smaller-scale certification programs aimed at passing along specific skills and proficiencies. Something will be lost, and it would be good for some broad elements to remain, to encourage critical thinking and depth of experience, but as it stands, the process of higher education feels more and more like a scam.

Four Quick Points on Torture

Friday, April 24th, 2009

1. Bush administration officials displayed a minimum of due diligence before embarking on their torture program.

2. Khalid Sheik Muhammad and Abu Zubaydah were waterboarded 266 times.

3. Intelligence officals argue: “There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics.

4. One of the main motivations for toture? “The Bush administration applied relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime…

Ian Frazier Spoofs Rosetta Stone

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

Ian Frazier’s latest humor piece in the New Yorker, “Mi Chiamo Stan,” is especially funny for anyone who’s seen these Rosetta Stone advertisements before.

I wish I’d have thought of it first. It’s really well done.

Dale Dobson: Gaming After 40

Monday, April 20th, 2009

FLYMF Alum Dale Dobson has started a new blog, “Gaming After 40.” In his first post, he lays out his motivation:

I’m starting this blog to reminisce, speculate and celebrate the history, future and present state of the odd, wonderful fusion of art and technology that videogames present. I hope younger readers will find interesting retro trivia and history here, and older gamers will hear a sympathetic voice as we get our collective butts kicked online. I’m going to talk about what I’m playing, what I’ve played, what’s exciting and new, and what has stood the test of time. Probably at excessive length, but that’s why it’s a blog and not a newspaper column.

The blog is just up-and-running, but the posts are compelling and thoughtful so far. If you’re into video games at all, or if you once were and drifted away, I recommend reading it.

Dale’s stories “Toontown Personals” and “Educational Board Games” were published in FLYMF’s Greatest Hits. Other stories he contributed to FLYMF include “Short-Lived Retail Franchises,” “Evil Forces Surround Me,” “If Desserts Were Sold Via Multilayer Marketing,” “Abandoned Muppet Film Projects,” and “Abbott and Costello Meet Larry David.”

Torture Memos Inspire Outrage

Friday, April 17th, 2009

Washington Post opinion writer Dan Froomkin expresses the outrage many of us feel upon the release of White House torture memos.

The profoundly disgusting memos made public yesterday — in which government lawyers attempted to justify flatly unconscionable and illegal acts — provide a depressing reminder of a time when the powerful and powerless alike were stripped of their humanity.

These memos gave the CIA the go-ahead to do things to people that you’d be arrested for doing to a dog. And the legalistic, mechanistic analysis shows signs of an almost inconceivable callousness. The memos serve as a vivid illustration of the moral chasm into which the nation fell — or rather, was pushed — during the Bush era.

Here’s my message to my political representatives. Hopefully if enough voices are raised, people will go to jail for their illegal torture advocacy.

To: President Barack Obama
CC: Senator Dick Durbin, Senator Roland Burris, Congressman Mike Quigley

A Call for a Special Prosecutor to Investigate Torture

Dear sirs:

The release of the Central Intelligence Agency interrogation memos, coupled with other alarming information that has trickled out in books and newspapers in recent years, has made clear the real possibility that war crimes were committed by leading members of the Bush administration.

In response to these contraventions of American law and moral standards, a special prosecutor needs to be appointed to investigate these abuses of the rule of law and human decency. Otherwise, the standards of justice and decency our country has long espoused will be forever tarnished.

SXSW 2009 Post-Mortem

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

This year’s South by Southwest Music Festival featured a ton of great bands. Between day parties and official night showcases, we managed to catch 27 bands in four days. Here’s the music we heard, from favorites to forgettables.

1. Sam Roberts Band
As the Canadians hanging out in El Sol Y La Luna told us, this group sells out arenas north of the border, but here they played to a bar full of fans. The music was definitely arena-worthy, with a huge wall of sound that was reminiscent of U2 or a good Bon Jovi. They closed their set with a monster guitar rave, and then topped it with their encore. A great show.

2. The She Creatures
The She Creatures claim to be from Venus, but their homeworld is really Planet Garage. The all-women band’s blue wigs and space silver bodysuits could be concept overkill with another group, but the group kept it fun with killer fuzz-rock songs like “Sexy Robot” and “She Creatures Invade.”

3. Slow Club
A British boy-girl band—he picked away on guitar, she banged on the drums, and both of them sang high, beautiful songs. It wasn’t all sappy stuff, though—they had some drive in their pocket, and could kick it up to a joyous, jump-along tempo. The crowd loved them.

4. The Golden Arm Trio
Set in a dark, cavernous jazz club, Golden Arm Trio bandleader Graham Reynolds led his group through a tribute to Duke Ellington. A piano, trombone, tenor saxophone, bass and drums all chimed in for a precise, beautiful set, full of small wonders and easy breathing.

5. The Peekers
We stumbled on this group at a day show while reconnecting with high-school friends, and they stood out above all the happy BSing. They had a perfect outdoor sound, with a bright organ, perky harmonies and a happy, skipping uptempo feel.

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Ralph Gamelli in Raging Face

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

FLYMF Alum Ralph Gamelli has a story, “Elevator Games,” published in the latest installment of Raging Face.

Ralph’s story, Rocky Balboa Launches Into Inspirational Speeches Too Frequently, was published in FLYMF’s Greatest Hits. He also contributed How Long Before I Use My Ejector Seat? and  Twilight Zone Episodes For the Internet Age.

Ebert Slams O’Reilly

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

Roger Ebert is indominitable (and hilarious) in his defense of the Chicago Sun-Times. I wrote a while back about his takedown of Jay Mariotti. Now Ebert has targeted Bill O’Reilly for the newsbuffoon including the Sun-Times in his “Hall of Shame.”

An excerpt:

Dear Bill: Thanks for including the Chicago Sun-Times on your exclusive list of newspapers on your “Hall of Shame.” To be in an O’Reilly Hall of Fame would be a cruel blow to any newspaper. It would place us in the favor of a man who turns red and starts screaming when anyone disagrees with him. My grade-school teacher, wise Sister Nathan, would have called in your parents and recommended counseling with Father Hogben.

I’m not sure why Ebert classified Charles Krauthammer as “admirable,” but the rest is spot on.

Play Ball

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

I enjoyed this Stuart Carlson cartoon (especially appropriate given the weather we’ve been having in Chicago lately).

Click to see a full-size version.

Review: Pox Americana

Monday, April 6th, 2009

Pox Americana follows the smallpox epidemic that spread through North America from 1775-1782, tracing its impact on the Revolutionary War and Native American and Colonial society. Historian Elizabeth Fenn is meticulous in chronicling the devastation, using firsthand accounts and surviving records to sketch out the death and fear that followed the disease.

The impact of smallpox on the Revolutionary War occupies much of the book. Epidemiologically, the Americans were at a disadvantage. Smallpox was endemic in Europe, and British soldiers were much more likely to have been exposed to the disease, gaining immunity. This vulnerability led to serious losses during the revolutionary army’s invasion of Canada, as smallpox weakened and killed susceptible soldiers.

George Washington struggled with the decision of whether to inoculate his soldiers. Under the imperfect technique of the time, inoculation was a draining affair, confining inoculees to sickbeds. The process also potentially increased the risks of transmission, as inoculees were contagious during the dormant period that followed inoculation. Fenn skillfully uses this dilemma to build tension in a historic account.

In the post-Revolutionary period, Fenn focuses on the impact of smallpox on Native American populations throughout the continent, offering repeated accounts of decimated villages and devastated cultures. Native peoples were more vulnerable to the disease, and the successive accounts of loss are heart-rending.

The book is thorough and engaging but can be technical in its presentation of history. The larger themes of the Revolutionary War aren’t fleshed out. The author, it seems, is confident that readers will remember battles and developments they may not have encountered since elementary school. But the book is compelling in advancing its central theme: the outsized impact of this continent-wide epidemic.