Thursday, September 23rd 2010

Top 10 reasons why “reality” TV is an affront
posted @ 3:19 pm in [ ]

Ten. “Reality” TV shows are far too cheap and plentiful for my liking.

Nine. The production values are unapologetically terrible.

Eight. Although I think the point of watching professionally-produced entertainment is that it should be, at a minimum, of better quality than something a drunken monkey with a video camera in his phone could produce, “reality” TV seems to disagree.

Seven. The purpose of my ironic quotes around “reality” is because “reality” TV is just as cast and just as staged as any other TV program; just not as well.

Six. The lack of continuity between shots makes me want to beat the production assistants to various bloody pulps. That is, if they even have such essential personnel.

Five. The shows are not all that original, generally speaking. There are two formats: a contest where contestants get eliminated every week, and the one where they follow someone boring around in a semi-creepy way, getting all too personal. I hate them both.

Four. The characters are either truly dull or deeply obnoxious, neither of which I want to watch.

Three. As a genre, “reality” TV insults my intelligence, and that of anyone whose eyeballs happen to land on it.

Two. Related to that, it seems to make everyone who watches it for a while dumb enough not to be offended. I suspect it either has some sort of brain-liquefying properties that cause the tissue to begin dribbling out one’s ears, or it is some sort of conspiracy, and it is a step in the mind-control phase.

One. The whole concept behind “reality” TV as a genre is to save money by not paying writers. Hence the shows, the sensibilities of viewership, and my fellow writers suffer unnecessarily. Isn’t there enough suffering in the world without it?

Friday, August 13th 2010

Jackie the mighty huntress
posted @ 7:49 pm in [ ]

Did I mention that Jackie is perhaps the greatest mouser EVER? This morning featured what was almost a double, uhh, muricide: a dead mouse in the hall, and a live one she had cornered in one of my husband’s shoes.

I took the shoe outside and put it on its side, in the hopes that the hapless rodent would come out and run away. No luck. I put some unidentified seeds (no doubt from some previous macrobiotic roommate) at the ankle hole of the shoe, but that didn’t lure it out either — not that I could blame it. Finally, I put out a little blob of peanut butter (because everybody likes peanut butter) on a small rock just outside the shoecave and left for a while. When I came back, the shoe was free of its very own rodent infestation and the peanut butter blob was gone. I hope the mouse ate it all as a sort of celebration of having come through a brush with death.

Jackie of course got full credit for having caught two mice, including treats, pets, praise, and a mouse stamp on the calendar (unfortunately, they won’t really stick to her bowl). As previously mentioned, it is my hope that eventually, the mice will just stop coming in. In the meantime, I feel bad for the poor little things, but I don’t feel bad for being hantavirus-free.

Wednesday, August 11th 2010

Not agaaaaaiiin!
posted @ 10:13 pm in [ ]

Oh yeah: jury duty. Except now I live in a much teensier county, and they don’t give jurors anything like a questionnaire to fill out and send back, so I can’t offer my trademark, “I have a Ph.D. in political theory and I double-dog dare you to call me” and save myself a trip. I reckon I’ll just show up and promptly get tossed out on my over-educated butt as usual. At least the drive to Georgetown and back is pretty, and it’s entirely possible to park there.

For those of you just joining us, I get called for jury duty ALL THE FRICKIN’ TIME, and despite the fact that I have always wanted to serve on a jury, they never, ever, ever pick me as soon as they learn my terrible secret. So basically, it just wastes my time and makes me even more cynical about the juridical system.

In other news, I got married again last month. Yeah, I know. My single life: blink and you’ll miss it. It was a really cool Buddhist ceremony performed by a former rockstar student of mine (although technically, he’s really more of a folk/bluegrass/Celtic star). I wore purple, because really, who am I kidding? It was also really fun. I can certainly provide more details on that if you’re interested, dear reader.

One of the many things we did to save money was to buy all the booze for the bar. It’s probably going to take us until our first anniversary or longer to get through the leftovers. Said leftovers — including a few cases of wine — are stashed in the garage, which is at the lowest point of the hill-perched house. This of course has led me to refer to the garage as “the wine cellar.” It’s so much classier than “booze-infested garage.”

Tuesday, April 13th 2010

The biggest lie in undergraduate academia
posted @ 11:12 am in [ ]

This is it: “You can’t make a living as a writer.”

You would not believe how many of my young students have been told that — most of them perfectly good writers — and there is no bigger pile of hooey. Seriously, it’s hard to have a good career without being a good writer. A close second is that it matters a lot what your major is, and that you shouldn’t get a B.F.A. when you can get a B.A., because a B.A. is so much more respectable.

First of all, nobody cares what your bachelor’s degree is in, or what kind it is, unless you’re applying for a really specific graduate program or a job with a very tiny niche. I don’t know what the statistics are now, but when I was in college, fewer than 19% of college graduates ended up working in fields related to their bachelor’s degrees. Employers just care that you have a legitimate bachelor’s degree of some kind, so you might as well major in whatever you find interesting. It might lead you to a career, or it might just keep you curious for four years, or for life. Don’t, for the love of Jeebus, major in “business” unless you really do like it. It won’t help you get a job any more than any other major.

Ironically, when I made my decision to change my major, that 19% statistic encouraged me to go ahead and follow my instincts (because, hey, why not?), and I actually became part of the 19% as a result of that decision. When I decided to get a B.F.A. instead of a B.A., some people I talked to about it strongly advised against it. Over the past 21 years since I made that decision, though, nothing bad has ever come of it. To my knowledge, nobody has ever given a rip that I have a B.F.A. and not a B.A., and it made me a better writer, which has been a serious benefit throughout my adult life.

There really haven’t been too many bad situations that I couldn’t write my way out of. I got into graduate school, and managed to get up to speed in a ridiculously difficult program, because I could write. I’ve gotten more work writing and teaching writing than anything else I’ve ever done. At one point, I was averaging about $28 an hour in cash and prizes writing irate letters. One time when I really needed a lawyer, but didn’t have much money, the lawyer I really wanted agreed to take my case and make all kinds of payment arrangements because he said it was the best-written letter he had ever gotten. I have no idea where the hell I would be if I hadn’t focused on becoming a good writer in college, and learned how to do it professionally, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be pretty.

Okay, it’s difficult to make a living as a professional poet if that’s all the writing you’re willing to do. Which is not to say that it can’t be done, just that it takes a crazy amount of effort, and you’d need a day job in the meantime. I think part of being a good writer is being able to write in a lot of different styles, though. Writers and editors are always needed, and with more and more information coming out from everywhere all the time, there’s plenty of work. Sure, people will try to do it themselves for a while, but sooner or later, if they want their promotional materials or Internet presence to look professional, they’ll have to hire writers, or at least good editors, for their voluminous copy. Everybody’s copy is voluminous these days, too, because paying by the character and using printing presses are passe. Plus, most writing work these days can be done by Internet, so you can be a writer pretty much anywhere, and have clients everywhere. You just have to be proficient, self-promoting or well-connected enough to go out and find some work to get started (for which there are even websites these days), and willing to write or edit whatever needs to be written or edited.

So for those guidance counselors who said that you shouldn’t get a B.F.A. or that you couldn’t make a living as a writer, what the hell are their degrees like? Bachelor’s in psychology, master’s in education administration? A few of them, maybe, but most of those folks did not plan on being guidance counselors when they were growing up, or when they were in college. If there’s a specific career trajectory you think you’d like to follow, talk to the people who are out there doing it and find out what they really do and how they got there. Base your decision on that, not on what someone in a completely different line of work imagines they do, or what they think is the “normal” path for doing it. “Normal” career training paths are sort of like the “average” person — they’re a composite of a huge sample, and few single individuals really look like that. Really good guidance counselors can point you toward things and make suggestions, but to get the real skinny, ask some practitioners.

By all means, major in whatever interests you the most, and get whatever degree makes sense for you — just finish it. That’s all employers really care about, and you might as well enjoy the work you have to do to get there. That, and learn to be the best writer you can be.

Thursday, April 8th 2010

Captain Swift and the Invasion from Dimension X!
posted @ 2:54 pm in [ ]

Here’s one of the many things I’ve been doing lately: being in a sci-fi melodrama that’s running throughout April. I play the green chick. Volume up?

Monday, March 22nd 2010

No, it really IS you.
posted @ 1:23 pm in [ ]

So I was driving around the other day, listening to the kind of loungey jazz compilation CD that I favor, minding my own business, and “Not Me” came on. You know the one: “Not me, it’s the people who say / the men are leading the women astray / but I say / that the women of today / are smarter than a man in every way…” OK, I can buy that, but the song is not actually about women being smart; it’s about them being deceptive.

In particular, the part about Samson and Delilah got me thinking. Who decided that the moral of that story was that women are deceptive and not to be trusted? (OK, that’s rhetorical. We know who: a bunch of shriveled white guys. That’s always who.) There are so many other possibilities! What about, “It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice?” If Samson hadn’t spent all that time being a jerk, nobody would have wanted to find out the secret of his strength and defeat him in the first place. What about, “Never go to a new stylist without references?” I mean, who among us hasn’t been robbed of our strength by a terrible haircut? Or, “Best not to be a man-whore–it’ll get you into trouble.” That was the essence of Samson’s weakness, long before his fateful coif.

We all get the same data, but it’s all in the interpretation. Critical thought is good stuff.

Wednesday, January 20th 2010

What the #@$*& happened in Massachusetts last night?
posted @ 11:19 am in [ ]

That’s what so many of my friends and colleagues want to know today. I mean, how the hell should I know? I’ve been living in Colorado for nearly 13 years now — my voter registration in the Bay State has long since lapsed, but I think it’s so incomprehensible that a Republican would be sitting in Ted Kennedy’s old senate seat that people are scrambling for meaning.

I think this is my favorite explanation of what happened: the Massachusetts electorate got drunk on its own power, had a wild time with someone who didn’t seem to be taking them for granted for a change, and will now be deeply hung over for the next several years. I’ll tell you when I knew Coakley was doomed, though: it was when I heard that she had called a former Red Sox pitcher a Yankees fan. I groaned. “That could cost her the election,” I said out loud. It probably did, but as part of a larger picture of rash assumptions.

However, I offer you this Top Ten list:

Top Ten Reasons Not to Freak Out About This Election:

Ten. The runoff election legislation was stupid, and I think everyone sees that now.

Nine. People who are Republicans in Massachusetts are no more conservative than moderates in other states. Even Republicans enact progressive legislation there. Take Republican Governor Bill Weld, who enacted the Family Leave Act, which allowed for even same-sex partners to take leaves from work to care for each other in times of illness and not lose their jobs because of it — and that was about 15 years ago.

Eight. Scott Brown looks all right naked, and apparently, has a truck. Who was the last person in Massachusetts politics who looked all right naked? Would you have wanted to see Ted Kennedy naked in the last, say, 40 years? Think of it as an upgrade.

Seven. People think that active voters, such as the Massachusetts electorate, will just make the “smart choice” for the “common good,” every time. That, my friends, is crap. Active voters also like to let the country know they’re sick of being taken for granted, or that the “smart” candidate sucks in some way. A clever mob is still, after all, a mob.

Six. The next person who says it’s a referendum on health care reform should have his eyelids taped open and have to look at recent Ted Kennedy porn. That’s not what this is about. Massachusetts HAS health care! It’s about Massachusetts voters being annoyed as individuals. They are probably just as surprised as you are, each thinking his one little annoyance vote for the other guy wouldn’t amount to anything, and they’re probably already sorry and blaming themselves personally. And they should. Next time, they’ll vote for the common good in droves, they promise.

Five. If the people of the fine, fine, superfine Commonwealth of Massachusetts think their senator is not representing their interests, he is out of there, in a process that will likely involve tarring and feathering (wasn’t the Major Molineaux Tar and Feather Emporium the first business on the Boston Common?), and will make the California runoffs look like an episode of The View. OK, bad example: The California runoffs really were a lot like an episode of The View. But Massachusetts Boot-Your-(Nice)-Ass-out-of-Office runoffs will be a lot more like WWE Raw, except not quite so civilized and candy-assed, and with sensible shoes.

Four. Scott Brown and his truck are about to be horribly aged and unable to please anybody. In two years, they’ll both look like victims of a terrible curse, or like they’ve been trying to kill Master Windoo with The Dark Side of The Force. This is a state where, when someone takes your parking spot that you painstakingly shoveled out and placed your old couch in to “save” it for you (no mean feat, considering you are probably a middle-aged Irishman who is under 5′8″ and over 200 pounds, subsisting entirely on a diet of starch and fatty meats), you call your representative about it. Think Mr. Boxer Briefs is up to that? Either he is, and folks will be OK with the choice they made, or he is SO not, and he will pay. You don’t have to do anything — the Massachusetts electorate will take care of it.

Three. Despite any ridiculous commentary we’re about to see, the kind of teabagger who is welcome in Massachusetts is not the kind currently championed by Fox News. One election does not signify a statewide shift in ideology, and the Cradle of the Revolution does not appreciate hollow Tetley mockeries.

Two. Senate Democrats have now officially pissed away their super-majority. If they’re paying attention, it should now be obvious that they really must stop worrying about pleasing everyone right away, and just ram through the legislation we need, before any more votes about frustration come up. The American electorate just isn’t that patient. Ideally, this should get Senate Democrats on the stick, and that helps everybody, whether they like it or not.

One. As Jon Stewart so aptly pointed out: Oh, no! Now Democrats only have a regular majority and not a super-majority?! It’s still more votes than Bush had when he did whatever the f* he wanted.

Indeed. Why exactly are we in a tizzy?

Thursday, December 17th 2009

The reporter’s voice: Who, me?
posted @ 5:47 pm in [ ]

You are happily doing some work for an online news organization — a really good one. You like it very much, you like the philosophy, and you like the people. You think it’s really taking off, too, and there’s an exciting energy about being part of something so important and cool. You realize, though, that it’s a challenge to use the third person exclusively, and usually, passive voice annoys you (yeah, you do, don’tcha?), but hey, sometimes it’s necessary, or it’s all you can do with the text and still have it make sense. It’s also like riding a bike: you can get back into it when you’ve worked in journalism enough, except anywhere with your laptop is quieter than the newsroom where you learned to write on deadline and copy edit.

You get those events listings that say, “we” all the time in the original listing, and, recognizing that that will not stand, you must then ask yourself, “Well, who the hell is this ‘we’? Is it the ‘they’ you are always hearing about, except this month, they’re having an event where they weed local parks instead of trying to wreck your life specifically?” and then you figure out who “we” is, and edit accordingly. Or sometimes you get postings that don’t have anywhere near enough information to be remotely useful to anyone, and then you do some research, scrape together enough that people will know whom to contact and where and when to show up, and what-all is going on (you leave the “why” — and usually the “how” — to them).

Either way, you polish it up and post that badboy. This, of course, makes you feel clever and pleased with yourself. You solved something. You made a little journalistic marble out of a scratched and dented ball-bearing pile of words. Now you can go on beautifying electronic copy, with a smile on your face.

Thanks, I feel better now. I just had to get that out of my system. Or, you know, you did.

Wednesday, December 16th 2009

Every Child Left Behind
posted @ 4:06 pm in [ ]

I just want to take a moment to rant about the general suckitude of No Child Left Behind. It sucks in much the same way that just about everything the Bush administration jacked with sucks. That is, it is an utterly ineffectual policy that made a bad situation far worse than anyone could have imagined, it favors rich white people, screws regular Americans for years, if not generations, to come, and is largely based on fear, and rich people getting richer while poor people get poorer (which, as you know, is the step just before the rest of us were all to just lie down and die and let Dubya and his pals have everything). I know, that’s very specific and somewhat long-winded. Now you know why I opted for the more concise and almost plaintive term, “sucks.”

Was public education in the U.S. bad before NCLB? In many places, sure, it wasn’t great. I for one succeeded in spite of my public education and not because of it. But it wasn’t great, not because our teachers suck, or because the schools themselves aren’t trying, or because our kids are too stupid; it wasn’t great because it wasn’t enough of a priority on our resource allocation list. Schools didn’t have the budgets to get what they needed and were overwhelmed with bureaucracy. Teachers had classes that were too big, and not enough hours in the day to teach how they wanted. The students that were doing poorly got a fair amount of attention (whose effectiveness wasn’t uniform), but the ones who were excelling didn’t get much reinforcement, and in some places, most of the kids in the middle didn’t, either.

So what was the solution? Standardized testing. The schools whose test scores were high would get more money, and those whose test scores were low wouldn’t. Standardized testing, though, mostly tests the size of the houses in the neighborhood where the test is being administered. So the rich schools did well and got richer, and the poor schools didn’t do as well, and got poorer. Teachers had to spend a bunch of time teaching to the test and not covering key material kids would need to get along in their educations and lives. Students got ripped off.

But that’s not the worst of it.

My father, who teaches high school geometry at a charter school in New England, has been observing that skills are declining over time. Every year, it seems he has to go back a little further in students’ basic mathematical education and get them up to speed before he can teach them what they’re supposed to be learning that year. First it was more basic algebra, then it started moving back further, to the point where, several years on, he was having to catch high school students up on fractions, and now, long division. Essentially, he observed earlier this year, it seems that students didn’t learn much math after about 2001, wherever they were in the process at that point — their mathematical educations just seem to have stalled there.

And what happened in 2001? Indeed, NCLB happened. It brought the educational process of an entire generation to a screeching halt. Now that those folks who were in grade school and junior high then are in college, I’m seeing it, too: adults who don’t know what a part of speech is, or what the difference is between first and second person. I’m filling in the holes wherever I find them, and the students are very eager indeed to have them filled — they really are thirsty for knowledge, which is great — but it really bothers me how completely the educational system in this country has failed an entire generation.

I hope there is a special place in hell for leaders who rip off their nations’ kids.

Tuesday, November 24th 2009

Baking water — for science!
posted @ 10:42 am in [ ]

One of the sure signs that you’ve somehow become a grown-up — along with any sugar sludge at the bottom of your coffee cup or cereal bowl no longer looking appetizing — is that your weekends are busier than your weekdays and the few days before a holiday are busier still. No doubt about it: I’ve got a busy day!

At least a lot of the busy-ness is mitigated by pleasure, though: I have some class prep for the morning writing class, but it’s all short papers, most of which are the satire assignment, which should be a lot of fun to read. I have a class to teach tonight, but it’s my favorite session of the series. I have a ton of errands to run, but I can bump a few to tomorrow if it comes down to it, and they’re all either quick, or in anticipation of Thursday’s festivities, or both. I also have some work to do for Oakland Local, but that’s generally fun stuff. I get to work with neat people on a cool project, and while I’m at it, find out more and more about what has to be one of the most vibrant, passionate communities in the country. I am perpetually knocked out by what Oaklanders are up to.

One of today’s tasks is an experiment. As you well know, I haven’t intentionally eaten the landgoing since the Reagan administration. I really don’t proselytize about it, though, and I’ve been known to prepare meat for others from time to time. One of those times will be Thursday. I’m making a 21-pound turkey for 4 carnivores. I can only hope each of them wants to eat 5.25 pounds of turkey. I know, I know, but it was only 40 cents a pound and it was the last one left, so even the reasonably-sized ones were more than twice as expensive.

The last time I made turkey (and the first time, incidentally) was 15 years ago, when I was living in the D.C. area with Phillip, before we were married. Phillip had this frozen turkey from work, and in a shocking fit of domesticity and loving sacrifice, I decided to cook it up for him. It came out quite well, but the process was a total freakshow. I recall it doing a number of different things, all of them bizarre and unexpected, the most memorable of which had to be the giant, golf-ball-sized fat bubble it grew out of its armpit. I called everybody I knew whom I thought might have the vaguest clue what might be going on: parents, auntie, friends of the family… It was like an X-Files episode, complete with frantic conspiracy going on in my oven. What was that thing?! Was there something terribly, horribly wrong with the turkey? Was it part of the pop-up thermometer system? Should I pop it, or could that wreck something? What if I stabbed it or tried to pop it and it exploded, spewing hot turkey fluids all over the place, possibly burning me and the kitchenette beyond all recognition? What if I stabbed it and it didn’t pop at all? Would that be even worse? Was it plastic or actual avian tissue? Did I leave something in/on the turkey that I wasn’t supposed to? (Oh, you didn’t take the evil alien membrane off it before you cooked it? Everybody knows to take the evil alien membrane off it before they cook it…)

So I have cooked a turkey before, and I have made large Thanksgiving meals without turkeys before (someone else being in charge of roasting birds, and the guests being lovely people), but I have never done both at the same time. I don’t anticipate any problems weirder than wingpit fat bubbles, but I do need to know just how long to cook the turkey. “Until the thermometer pops up” and “about 20 minutes per pound” don’t cut it, because everything else has to hit the table at about the same time. I need that endpoint, dammitt!

There is an added wrinkle. At this altitude, cooking and baking become slightly more complex. I usually end up baking things at a lower temperature, and longer, otherwise they burn on the outside and stay raw on the inside. I couldn’t say what the exact values are for that for meat (I could only give percentages on cookies), so I was unable to come up with a mathematical or physics solution for the doneness dilemma. My dad came to the same conclusion: not enough data.

The best idea we came up with was to go ahead and use the real meat thermometer I was planning to use anyway, and take temperature readings every 15 minutes for the first several hours. Then, by the time I would have to start making all the other stuff, I should know the increase of temperature and shape of the data well enough to predict what time the turkey should come out of the oven: an engineering solution. We were predicting a likely logarithmic curve, or possibly a near-linear progression. (No, I don’t think the system, although containing feedback, would be chaotic enough to exhibit any power law scaling. Not enough variables: with four, you get chaos. Five bucks. You know who you are.) I would then slug the absolute time values into my now relative timetable and finish the job.

My dad also suggested a sort of dry run — but in this case, a wet run. Because the tissue of vertebrates is at least 80% water, he recommended baking 21 pounds of water at 325 and seeing what the pattern of data did. If nothing else, it should at least give me a minimum time.

So I’m doing that right now. I filled the roasting pan with approximately 21 pounds of water and duct-taped the meat thermometer to the side of the pan (what with not having any meat to stick it in, and thermometers generally not standing up in tapwater). The meat thermometer doesn’t start reading until 140 degrees, though, so it’s not as much data as I’d like. I tried a candy thermometer, which starts reading around 75 or so, but unfortunately, the oven started melting it before it yielded any interesting results. Such is science.

The water has been happily baking away for a few hours now. At first I thought the experiment wasn’t going to work at all, because of the lack of sub-140-degree data, and because the temperature was rising pretty quickly: about a degree a minute. Then, it started slowing down a lot: more like a few degrees every 15 minutes. Now it’s barely moving: maybe a degree every 15 minutes. Even if it doesn’t end up taking the 7+ hours I expect the turkey to take, that’s still some interesting information that helps me out. Such is science.

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