june 07



When Jonathan Lethem, (since it’s been, oh, two weeks since I last quoted Lethem) was asked about dropping out of college he answered, “My mother also dropped out of college and she was one of the smartest people I’ve known, so the way of the autodidact is an honorable one as far as I’m concerned – I hope I’d be supportive if my child chose that path too!”

I couldn’t agree more. The five friends of mine that didn’t graduate college are doing much more with their lives than anyone else I know. And if I could do it over, I’d have used those four years to travel, maybe teach English in China. When I have children, I’ll pay what ever I need to for private Montessori or Waldorf schools, but – unless there’s a great shake-up in higher education over the next twenty-five years (unlikely) – at eighteen, the rest is up to them.

In this bit I wrote as a collegiate – (something I really should go back, pad up, and submit somewhere) – I argued that departments act similar to special interest groups, which is why at least half of the classes you take are guaranteed to make no difference in the rest of your life (Semiotics????) The core curriculum, while nice in theory (math nerds can learn to love Plato too!) is simple bureaucracy in practice.

Richard Vedder (via Hit and Run) argues “too many students, not too few, are going to college”. Vedder, an economist, wrote a book, “Going Broke by Degree,” which I look forward to reading.

He blames federal financial aid programs for the raising higher education costs, (something we all can agree is absurd and evil) and writes, “Colleges and universities often violate an implicit contract with their donors in the way they allocate resources, very often paying scant attention to the needs of the undergraduate students who typically are their bread and butter.”

This snake oil’s ticket price is perpetuated the same way people spend upwards of $30,000 on their wedding day, (This is something Rebecca Mead’s new book, “One Perfect Day” explains hilariously. I have a book review of it coming out soon, so I’ll hold off on talking about that any more, although I’m itching to quote her etymology of “rite-of-passage.”)

It also seems that college prevents young adults from gaining a sense of money and self-reliance. If $35,000 is what your parents paid or you were loaned for a year’s worth of tuition, there’s no way you’ll respect an entry-level salary. I am flabbergasted by friends of mine that have enormous apartments, all brand-new furniture, and eat out every night. The more recently they graduated, the less likely they are to budget or put costs into perspective. That we have a largely cash-less economy makes it even more difficult to consider money as something other than an abstraction.

I also wonder how many people got their jobs through alumni events, professor-advisors, or the job services program at their schools. My hunch is not very many. Then, there’s the problem that students don’t even know what jobs *are*, or whether or not they are interested or eligible. With title inflation abundant everywhere, who the hell knows what a “project coordinator” or “marketing analyst” actually does? (Answer kiddos: file and copy and make coffee!)

Ironically, news headlines instead decry the shortage of men at university. While I don’t have statistics to back this up – I’m guessing more men than women substitute vocational training for college. Men are more career minded, women don’t as often keep an eye on the linear path because, oh, that’s right, about seven years after graduating you’re going to drop out of work to have a baby.

Which is why, many women my age find themselves thinking, “I went $60,000 in debt so I could be Pam from The Office?” Like it or not, the whole, she’s-in-college-to-get-her-M.R.S stereotype exists on every campus, except maybe Smith or Sarah Lawrence.

Unfortunately, it’s going to be a long time until human resource departments are awake to it (partly because HR managers are the worst of the Trixie and Chad post-college stereotypes.) Besides, tech companies – which will hire coders out of high school – most companies set a Bachelor’s degree as the bare minimum. Just look at Craigslist. Even underling administrative jobs – $12 an hour! – require four year college degrees, simply because the culture at large refuses to accept that an eighteen year old may be mature enough to make his or her own decisions.

But classism is the root cause, and it may just be unavoidable. If you are under thirty, the first or second thing you ask another person under thirty is “Where did you go to school?”

Posted by site admin at 8:25 pm |

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I was up in Ithaca a few weeks ago, and Radio Lab podcasts were a godsend for the long drive to and from. If you haven’t listed to the program, go to the website and download on a whim. I can’t think of a single boring episode. It’s swiftly edited and garnished with lots of fun sound effects, and you will have tons of cocktail party conversation fodder for the rest of the week (Who knew mothers across the globe speak to their babies with universal intonation? Or that a scientist has doubled the lifespan of worms – using genetic research that one day might be applicable to us?)

But it was the interview with Ann Druyan that really hit me as I was just approaching town and looking out the window at the clear Upstate New York night sky. She describes the summer she and her late husband Carl Sagan worked on the Voyager Interstellar Message, the golden records that were placed inside the Voyager I and II spacecrafts. The discs, with a shelf life of a billion years, had everything from Louis Armstrong to obscure Chinese tribal music. They put the records alongside a phonograph and engraved hieroglyphics explaining how to play. But then she had the idea that if she meditated while a machine recorded her brain activity, maybe an intelligent life will eventually be able to decode it. “A billion years is a long time, Annie. You might as well do it,” is what Carl Sagan said. So right now, in outer space, is a recording Druyan’s every neuronal impulse in that moment. Making it even more romantic, the recording took place the very week they fell in love. Of course a billion years isn’t much in space, but that’s got to be the most romantic event in history. That’s just incredible.

Since then, I’ve been reading and listening to more interviews and watching some of her lectures. It’s really no surprise that most google hits for her name turn up websites like “brainy quote” or “quote of the day,” she’s a softly insightful speaker:

“I think the roots of this antagonism to science run very deep. They’re ancient. We see them in Genesis, this first story, this founding myth of ours, in which the first humans are doomed and cursed eternally for asking a question, for partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. It’s puzzling that Eden is synonymous with paradise when, if you think about it at all, it’s more like a maximum-security prison with twenty-four hour surveillance. It’s a horrible place. Adam and Eve have no childhood. They awaken full-grown. What is a human being without a childhood? Our long childhood is a critical feature of our species. It differentiates us, to a degree, from most other species. We take a longer time to mature. We depend upon these formative years and the social fabric to learn many of the things we need to know.”

“When my husband died, because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me—it still sometimes happens—and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl.”

Posted by site admin at 6:41 pm |

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Washington City Paper has a long overdue cover feature on street harassment. Unfortunately, the accompanying pieces are semi-oblivious to – or scared to dwell on – the uniqueness of DC’s racial stratification. It’s not called Chocolate City for nothing, but then again, it’s also the number one post-college destination for every do-gooder blonde chick with a liberal arts degree. Read Feministing’s take instead, including this bit about street harassment blogs:

The folks at Hollaback are sensitive to the race issue, and have an antiracism statement on their site. The one time I submitted a cellphone photo of some guys who had harassed me on the street, they informed me that there might be a wait to see my incident appear on their blog, as they make a conscious effort to publish photos of street harassers of all races. And they explicitly ask that submissions not mention race unless it is somehow relevant to the incident of harassment.

Feministing recommends approaching the issue like F Files advises:

Different people may find themselves harassed more by different people, depending on where they live and specifics of their community. Sometimes some groups of people are outside and in the streets more often then other groups. Think before generalizing.

Posted by site admin at 4:22 pm |

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I’ve posted before about the magnificent photographer Edward Burtynsky (here are his photographs of workers demolishing ships.) Kottke posts the trailer for Manufactured Landscapes, a documentary about his travels through China. It seems to focus on e-waste – a huge and escalating problem in Asia and Africa. I absolutely can’t wait to see this.


Posted by site admin at 12:18 pm |

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I have a book review of Liza Mundy’s Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction is Changing Men, Women, and the World in The American:

Mundy’s account of the dilemmas posed by unused frozen embryos is the most compelling. She interviewed one couple that pays $2,000 a year to two separate clinics to keep their unused embryos stored in liquid nitrogen. “The range of choices is dizzying: Should they donate these excess embryos to another couple to gestate and bear? Their own daughters’ full biological siblings, raised in a different family? Should they donate the excess embryos to scientific research? Or should they authorize both clinics to remove the glass straws containing the embryos from the liquid nitrogen? Knowing how difficult pregnancy is for her?”

Fertility clinics often suffer the consequences of deadbeat IVF patients. They hire collection agencies to get former patients to make an executive decision, but if the clients can’t be found, the clinics are stuck. One fertility clinic chief told Mundy he fears what will happen when he retires. “The person buying [the clinic] does not want to inherit embryos. That’s the rule. People do not want to inherit embryos. So what do you do with them? I have embryos that have been here since 1992.”

Posted by site admin at 9:49 am |

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Linking to Seymour Hersh articles sometimes feels about as necessary as praising Beethoven or heirloom tomatoes in August, but no one should miss his current article, explaining “how Antonio Taguba, who investigated the Abu Ghraib scandal, became one of its casualties.”

Posted by site admin at 12:15 pm |

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No matter how many times you’ve seen the image of the man standing up to the tank in Tiananmen Square. it is impossible not to be moved by it. I tear up more often than not when I see the video footage. This week Frontline is airing a documentary on the “Tank Man,” and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s must viewing especially for everyone that was too young to fully recall the event.


“You could look at him as brave. But he probably wasn’t. He was probably just an ordinary person who was so disgusted by what he’d seen over the past couple days.” said Timothy Brook, from the University of British Columbia.

Because this image has been so frequently reproduced, its context is almost forgotten. It happened just after the government brutally massacred its nonviolent protesting civilians. This footage was horrific. Soldiers fired at their backs as they fled off on bicycles, some carrying wounded people on bicycle carts. Thousands were killed

Some say its fairly certain the man was executed. Tens of thousands were arrested at that time, many of them were executed, and for incidents that were far less insulting to the government.

But Jan Wong from the Globe and Mail disagrees, “I don’t think they had him or they wouldn’t have … displayed him.” As one of the women protesting on the square, Wong’s commentary was the most illuminating. She said that if you’ve ever seen the Chinese guards, they are extremely rough and violent. She thinks the people leading him off were helping him….and that’s he’s still alive.

And if he is alive, he lives in the only country that has forgotten him. Frontline reporters handed the famous picture to Beijing University students, who didn’t recognize it.
“I’m not not sure of the context. It might be a parade of something. I really don’t know. I’m just guessing,” said one student.
“Is this a piece of artwork? Did you make this up?” asked another.

You can’t find “Tank man” anywhere on Chinese google. “If another should step forward, technology will enable a swift arrest,” said the Frontline reporter.

Make no mistake, Chinese censorship is disgraceful and imprisoning, if not killing, innocent civilians. Like Shi Tao, who forwarded an internal memo about how China should deal with the anniversary of Tiananmen Square to a New York publication. Yahoo returned the information to the Chinese government, who put him in jail for 10 years.

Posted by site admin at 10:07 pm |



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