Understanding things

Finn has, sometime since New Year’s, passed the point at which it becomes clear that he understands what we’re saying to him.  Whereas toddlers of a certain age respond to vocal stimuli and delight in your company, after a certain age there’s a clear sense that they know what you’re saying, even if his entire vocabulary consists of ball, mama, dada, bubble, book, and dog.

Yes, I shaved this morning.  Why?
Yes, I shaved this morning. Why?

In the last couple weeks, he’s started to respond to phrases like “can you take that to your sister’s room?” by walking to Avery’s room.  He will get the ball or the book without any secondary prompting (like me pointing) and he’s much more oriented toward copying his sister.  This last has caused some problems, as she likes to climb into his toybox; he copies her but then gets stuck inside.

But he reached a surprising level of cognition last Sunday at McDonalds.  We went there to get some exercise (having been to the children’s museum on Saturday and not wanting to go out in the yucky rain), and have some fries.  Finn was playing just fine when he came over, took a couple fries, walked into the play area, and tossed them on the ground.  After a moment, he went back and picked them up.  We tensed, preparing to run over and take them away before he ate them (okay, Jenny tensed); instead, we watched, astonished, as he toddled over to the garbage can, pushed open the door, and threw them away.

It’s a strange age — he clearly understands much more than he can communicate and I suspect this imbalance causes the behavior trouble we’re starting to see.  It will be a fun couple years, I suspect.

Conan got a raw deal

Arg!  I got a raw deal

Okay, setting aside the idea of saying someone who just got paid tens of millions of dollars for being fired, I want to suggest that Conan got a raw deal from NBC.  If you were to move this situation into, say, retail businesses, it would be pretty darn evident that the NBC execs screwed the pooch.

Say there’s a really popular dessert restaurant, call it “Jay’s”.  It’s right next door to a popular dining establishment, “The News”, which is right next to an arcade, “Prime Time.”  The businesses all benefit from one another because people go to the arcade, then the restaurant, then grab dessert at Jay’s.  The owner of Jays makes a deal that he will vacate the building in five years, thinking he’ll be ready to be to retire.  But when the lease comes up, he decides he likes the restaurant biz, and wants to keep making his delicious desserts.  But the owner of the building already leased Jay’s restaurant space to a new chef, Conan.  Conan is also a dessert chef, but he’s been on an off-street around the corner and waiting for a slot to open up on this main street.  Jay suggests that he might stay in the restaurant business, and the building’s owner, who also owns the next door buildings, kicks the arcade out and lets Jay lease that space for his new dessert restaurant. Why should anyone be surprised when the business at The News or at Conan’s isn’t as strong as it was before, since the arcade is gone?

Okay, this is a bit silly.  But you see my point.  I’ve seen a number of articles, including one in the Chicago Tribune, suggesting that Conan failed in the Tonight Show slot.  They agreed that Jay’s show didn’t do the kind of business the network was hoping for, but they also repeatedly remarked that Conan underperformed.  But I’ve seen very little acknowledgment that the network, not Conan, is to blame for these low ratings.  When you double the available commodity (in this case, NBC talk/comedy-show hours), it shouldn’t be surprising that you halve the audience.  Conan came in not only competing with Letterman and Nightline and Ferguson and Kimmel, but also with Leno, who it can reasonably be asserted stole away a chunk of the audience who would have tuned in for Conan out of habit.


That said, I haven’t watched either of them in years, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain.

Fragile: “Love Never Dies”


by Stefano Raffaele

Fragile (2005) tells the story of a post-zombie world in which the few remaining humans are huddled in tiny compounds fending off the living dead.  Working for them are creepy predatory spiky-headed cyborg monsters called disinfectors.  But the zombies in this world have memories and feelings (and really don’t like the living that much).  So they can fall in love too.  And that’s what happens.  A few other thoughts:

  • Raffaele’s art is great, with strong detail and gruesome images.  The decaying bodies of the lovers are particularly well done, and the fight scenes have lots of horrible elements like disfigured zombies.  Well done, sir!
  • The plot is a bit convoluted, with rival groups of scientists competing for a serum that would cure the zombie-ness.  But it becomes more clear as it goes along.  The jump-cuts to backstory are also a little disorienting, but not beyond comprehension.
  • For no good reason, the two main female characters are dressed in almost nothing.  As though anticipating this criticism, Raffaele includes a bit of dialog from the characters about wanting to feel feminine.  Okay okay, but high heels when you’re running from zombies?  Bah.  I look forward to the day when the majority of comic artists understand that Barbie does not model average human anatomy.
  • The decision to make the zombies just dead versions of people (instead of mindless drones) makes the comics quite compelling and really dooms the people.  After all, the one advantage the living have over the dead are our wits.
  • The cover and subtitle highlight the idea of love between the zombies and yes, it’s a major plot point.  But at the same time, it carries less heft if zombies have thoughts and feelings.  I thought it was going to be some sort of love that exceeds normal feelings — but all the zombies keep feeling things, so it makes sense that love would be part of that equation.  Oh well.

A decent read, with interesting twists on the genre.

Music and my commute

Listening to Music on the Train
Listening to Music on the Train
  1. Riding to work last week, I stepped off the train and started walking up the platform.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw a man, mid-twenties with very closely cropped hair and a black jacket sitting on the train rocking out to his music.  His eyes were closed and he held his MP3 player in his right hand, his left sliding up and down the neck of his air guitar.  He shook and banged his head vigorously, thrashing to his music with abandon.  There was a good four foot radius around him that was empty.  As I looked up, I saw a man well into middle age looking at me from one of the other seats on the train.  He and I both glanced at the rocker simultaneously, then back at one another.  As the train pulled out of the station, he smiled at me and I at him, sharing a moment of delight in the city.
  2. Four strangers in the elevator today, each wearing headphones.  No longer do we stand together in silence, waiting for our floor to arrive.  Now we stand together in separate noise bubbles.  I wonder what the professional woman, the black-leather nouveau fifties greaser, and the knit-hat jumbo earphones hipster were listening to.  Myself?  The history of Pluto.

*image by noise64

Punished by Rewards

Punished by Rewards
Punished by Rewards

The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes by Alfie Kohn

With a new semester starting, it seems appropriate to post comments on grading.

Kohn develops a convincing summary and argument for the case against grades and grading (as well as other Behaviorist rewards and punishment systems).  The root of his argument springs from the studies that show these system to fail at doing precisely what we want them to do.  Reward systems that seek to inspire workers at their places of business do the opposite; grades reduce quality and desire to continue learning; rewards for children teach children to want rewards, not to develop good behaviors.  He addresses many other elements throughout the book, but these are the basics.  Some other thoughts:

  • Kohn explains how thoroughly pop behaviorism infiltrates and influences nearly every facet of our culture.  We have trouble even conceiving of a society that doesn’t run on behaviorist models.  Most people would be appalled by the argument that merit pay systems decrease motivation.
  • “when we are working for a reward, we do exactly what is necessary to get it and no more.” (63)
  • Quoting Ryan and Stiller: “The more we try to measure, control, and pressure learning from without, the more we obstruct the tendencies of students to be actively involved and to participate in their own education…. Externally imposed evaluations, goals, rewards, and pressures seem to create a style of teaching and learning that is antithetical to quality learning outcomes in school, that is, learning characterized by durability, depth, and integration.” (149-150)

The last two chapters start answering the question That’s all fine and good, but what do we do instead? I’ve been wrestling with grading my entire teaching career, caroming back and forth between a pseudo-objective points-based system and the idea of a non-grade class.  I think it’s time to push toward the latter.  Kohn offers several suggestions for minimizing the impact of grading on reducing learning: I’ll be implementing many of them this Spring.

One of the main ideas, though, is collaboration.  Students will feel more ownership and value in grading if they help determine the grading system.  I plan to do this with all three of my classes on the first day.  We’ll discuss what they hope to get out of the class, what kinds of evaluation we should use, and what goals we can use to push toward them.

Kohn also suggests that there are two fronts people concerned with the impact of rewards on learning must fight.  The first is the individual, limiting the damage rewards and punishments cause in one’s own sphere of influence.  The second front is institutional.  I plan to meet with our center for teaching excellence to see what their thoughts are on implementing some of these systems school-wide.

A great book for anyone interested in how people learn, and how we teachers regularly damage that process.

Voyage Long and Strange

A Voyage Long and Strange
A Voyage Long and Strange

Written and narrated by Tony Horwitz

What happened in that dark and lonely stretch of years between when Columbus arrived in the “new world” and when the pilgrims “landed” at Plymouth Rock?  Tony Horwitz takes us on a travelogue journey of these locations, scouting them and researching them, telling us about their history with a balanced perspective and a hard eye on the truth.  Some details:

  • The mix of modern day locations with historical research works very well.  I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the Dominican Republic in which Horwitz tastes a local meat from a street vendor that his local guide later warns him will kill tourists.  His conversations with various representatives of long-dead Indian tribes are equally compelling.
  • Horwitz tries to keep balance in the sections about the conquistadors, but the long tally of murder, rape, abuse, murder, rape, slavery, rape, murder, and on and on and on makes it hard to admire the men for their bravery in the face of adversity.  But the section where he visits an history fair and wears conquistador armor for a day is pretty funny.
  • He also underlines the vast importance disease had in helping Europeans gain a foothold in North America.  When the English arrived to settle New England, whole villages were deserted because of the plagues sweeping through the populations.
  • This isn’t a book to read if you value your old timey tourist treasures — none of them come off very strongly.  My favorite old man he revealed behind the curtain was St. Augustine, which claims to be the longest settled town in the modern U.S.  Horwitze reminds us that St. Augustine was founded as a temporary base from which the Spanish could root out the French Huguenots living up stream.  So to give credit to the Spanish is kinda funny.
  • Best line in the book (as best I can recall it), a man discussing why Plymouth (rather than Jamestown) is remembered as the first U.S. settlement to succeed: “Jamestown had too many layabouts too lazy to raise their own food.  And nobody wants to remember a city where a man killed his wife and unborn child to eat them.”

Horwitz does a fine job with the narration and fills in a sorrowful gap in my early American history knowledge.  A decent read.


Andrew sent me a note he found somewhere and suggested that I send it to FOUND website if I thought it was cool.  I did.  They thought so too.

I Ask That Some Girl Will Open This Up

Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me

Wait Wait Don't Tell Me
Wait Wait Don't Tell Me

I went to a taping of Wait wait… Don’t Tell Me at the Chase Bank auditorium a week ago Thursday.  It was a fun experience, and something that I’ll probably do again.  A few reflections:

  • The setup is pretty cool, kinda like a game show with the call-in listeners being replayed over the house speakers for us.  It’s casual and fun and they give you a pep talk about laughing out loud so that the radio audience can hear them.
  • We got there about 50 minutes before taping and were at the back of the line.  In future we’ll arrive an hour early, I think.  There was a line snaking through the lobby of the auditorium which, oddly, didn’t need ropes to snake.  There was a guy directing us where to stand and we all filed in politely.  Ahhh, NPR listeners.
  • The call-in guests were They Might Be Giants, a nice surprise for an uberfan like myself.  The conversation was funny and sincere and well worth it.
  • After the show, they do a few minutes of error correcting, in which Peter and the other members of the show re-tape short bits of dialogue that they flubbed or coughed or stuttered.  It’s weird to be in the audience as they have headphones and thus sit quietly going “okay, okay, uh huh” and then repeat something they said earlier on.  After that they do a Q&A (I asked Peter how he ended up introducing JoCo at the concert last October.  Peter asked if I was there and when I replied yes, he said I was “truly a nerd”).  Somebody else asked Carl Kassel if anyone ever offers him a chair.
  • The panel was pretty funny, with Moe Rocka, Charlie Pierce, and Faith Seely (?).  When Peter introduced her, he said “Mister Faith Seely,” which spawned many jokes that evening and prompted them to leave the error in the broadcast.    If I were to do a “top three” panel it would be Moe, Paula Poundstone, and Tom Bodett.  But everybody they have on is funny.

I’ll probably go back again.  If you are alert online you can get tickets for half price, so it’s a really good deal when that works out.

Dance of the Dead

Dance of the Dead
Dance of the Dead

Dance of the Dead epitomizes the well-made B movie.  It’s a fine example of the emerging teen-comedy zombie survival flick, with competent acting and special effects, a decent script, and a good story.  But it’s also not exceptional at any of those things.

The film follows a cross-section of high school cliques as they make their way through a zombie outbreak.  We have the nerds (the “Sci-Fi Club”), the no-good-nik, the rock band, the goody two shoes, the cheerleader, the mean science teacher, the corrupt principle, and the hardass gym teacher.  As in other films of this ilk (be they older movies like Return of the Living Dead and RTLD2 or Night of the Creeps or newer films like Boy Eats Girl or Night of the Living Dorks), some of the uncool kids prove themselves worthy and others get eaten.  A few more thoughts:

  • This movie pretty explicitly borrows from Shawn of the Dead‘s storyline about the slacker who decides not to be a slacker when the chips are down.
  • The best characters are the two badasses, the school bully who films backyard wrestling movies and head-butts people for no reason and the psycho gym teacher who turns out to be ready for the apocalypse, ala Steven Gross in Tremors.
  • There are a few overt references to other zombie or sf films.  The best comes when the nerds discover a group of students hiding in the bathroom.  The lead nerd puts out his hand and says “Come with me if you want to live.” Ahnold he’s not, but it’s funny anyhow.  We also have a creepy gravedigger who’s been killing zombies and stashing their bodies.  He hasn’t reported the corpses rising from the ground because he’s trying to keep his job.  Delamorte Dellamore he’s not.
  • One of the more original twists has the zombies entranced by rock music.  The device plays for comedy early on, as a punk band survives by holding the zombies at bay with their awesome tunes.  Then later it comes in handy to keep our heroes alive.
  • These zombies are, nominally, raised by some sort of toxic gas coming from the nearby nuclear power plant.  At the end of the film, the survivors decide to take out the plant, but first they go to get pancakes.

It’s a fine movie, and good if you’re a completist.  It doesn’t really break any new ground, so there are lots of more interesting movies to watch.  But if you like zombie movies a bit lighter but with plenty of blood and not many scares, this would be a good one for you.

Death in the Andes

Death in the Andes
Death in the Andes

by Mario Vargas Llosa

We read this book for my mystery reading group, but it’s hardly a mystery, traditional or no. Death in the Andes tells the story of two downtrodden Civil Guards who find themselves stuck at a remote outpost where they may be overrun by Communist rebels (of the “Shining Path”) at any moment. To add insult to injury, several locals have been disappeared and the policemen can’t help but wonder where they’ve gone.

Llosa writes in a stream-of-consciousness style, mixing voices and time periods together in a sometimes confusing melange. That said, the book is interesting and compelling, if a bit slow. A few thoughts:

  • The pace maintains the tension that haunts the main characters, who wait for their own deaths in the mountain shack where they’ve been stationed. The grim nature of “we could be killed at any moment” pervades the book.
  • It becomes evident that the villagers have become entranced by the bartender and his wife. As one of my book club colleagues pointed out, the nature of their cult is quite Dionysian. The woman urges the villagers on their drunken revels, and helps them pick who shall be sacrificed. The grim specter of the Shining Path revolutionaries haunting the jungles around the village are allegorized by these superstitious villagers. The moral: people are able and willing to be vicious for many reasons.
  • As a mystery, the story’s not very satisfying. While the detective does make a nominal attempt to solve the murders, it’s pretty secondary to the other elements at work in the story. My mystery group was most displeased.
  • The narrative style, weaving past into conversations in the present and mixing tales of different characters, takes some getting used to. In the end, I appreciated what the book was trying to do, but felt the story becomes far secondary to the style.
  • I would have liked for the publisher to make a bit more effort to provide connection points for non Peruvian readers. I think a short introduction about the political history of the region and perhaps a glossary at the back would have been nice.

The Gunslinger Born

The Gunslinger Born
The Gunslinger Born

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born by Peter David, Robin Furth, Jae Lee, Richard Isanove

I received this comic for Christmas from a friend who has read the Dark Tower series.  I’ve only read The Gunslinger, myself, but the world is intriguing and I’m sure I’ll read the rest eventually.  The comic tells an early story of Roland and his pals as they fight a small battle against the big bad villain.  It’s an enjoyable romp.  A few other thoughts:

  • The colors in the comic are stunning.  While the art has a lyrical look to it (more like ballet than superheroes), the colors vibrate off the page.
  • I like the trope of the guns being earned, but that young gunslingers are lethal with a variety of weapons.  In particular, I love the boy who uses a slingshot and ball bearings with deadly lethality.  It’s unclear to me, though, what the boy’s guns have that all the villains’ guns do not.  They seem to be well armed as well, but are frightened of the pistols the gunslinger carries.
  • The archetypes in the story — the ruthless villains and the heartless crone and the abused young girl who falls for the guy — drive it along nicely, and evoke any number of awesome old westerns or magic stories.
  • The narrator’s old timey voice got on my nerves by the end.  Gah.

Worth a read, but not as good as Preacher.


Zombies on the tide
Zombies on the tide

A student in my Zombies in Popular Media class loaned me her copy of Creepshow, which I know I’ve seen before, but it was so long ago that it was like watching a whole new movie. Entertaining in the cheesy way one would expect from a film version of an E.C. comic. A few thoughts:

  • Prologue/Epilogue: The story of an abused boy whose father throws away his Creepshow comic. He gets cheesy revenge at the end of the wraparound story. Best part? The dad is played by Tom Atkins, who also played the Dennis Farina-like cop in Night of the Creeps. Weird.
  • Father’s Day: A family of moneygrubbers finds themselves in trouble as the dead patriarch of the family rises to get his revenge. A good revenge-zombie story, though it seems like everyone was a jerk, so it’s not really reasonable that the father would return to wreak havoc. The head-cake was nice, though, and the appearance of young Ed Harris doing disco dances was a delight.
  • Something to Tide you Over: My favorite story of the lot. Follows the murder of Ted Danson and his lover at her husband’s (Leslie Neilson’s) menacing hands. Another tale in which zombies rise for revenge. I would like to see Mythbusters test whether being buried in the sand like that would really be dangerous. Actually, it’s something I could test with relative ease. (Note to self: youtube video to shoot this summer.)
  • The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill: Meh. Stephen King plays a guy who encounters an meteor and gets planty stuff all over him. The lamest of the stories.
  • The Crate: Another classic E.C-type story, with a few actors I recognize but no one I could place.
  • They’re Creeping Up on You: Yuckiest of the stories — cockroaches are horrible. One doesn’t mind the oppositions of technology and the abject, but I was a bit annoyed by the randomness of it. I wouldn’t have minded seeing a bit more dramatic irony in the reasoning that bugs attacked him. That said, yuck!

Overall, not bad. Enjoyable and worth seeing, if you like your horror with a side of cheese. For fans of Tales from the Crypt.

“Close your ears!”

Ninja turtles don't play cards.
Ninja turtles don't play cards.

Avery and I were playing Go Fish (Go Go Gorilla, actually) today (with alphabet cards).  Here’s a rough transcript of one conversation we had.

Avery: Do you have any Gees?

Me: Nope.  Go Go Gorilla.

Avery: Okay. [She draws a card.] Ceee.

Me: Avery, you shouldn’t say what card you picked up — then I will know what card you got.

Avery: [Exasperated.]  I was saying it to myself, Daddy.  You should close your ears when I’m talking.

The fierce urgency of Now

From “I Have a Dream

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

By contrast, here’s something from today’s Chicago Tribune:

…In a changing American culture with an increasing minority population, skin color is becoming a more common gauge for some Americans — of all races — to determine who fits in and who does not, sociologists said.

A caste system that novelist Alice Walker termed “colorism” has existed within the black community since slavery, stemming from the hierarchy established by slave masters for the light-skinned blacks who worked in the house and dark-skinned slaves who tended the fields.

Pigmentocracy also has long been a divisive issue among Hispanics, Asians and other ethnic groups. Now, it has flowed into the mainstream, according to experts who follow bias trends.

We also contend with the continuing economic ramifications of our country’s segregationist past, something that often couples poverty and wealth to make the whole situation difficult to address and understand. To top it off, our country’s denial about its history and present make it extremely difficult to talk about race at all, much less in mixed groups.

So today I spend some time thinking about the fierce urgency of now, and wondering what I can do in its glaring light for my society, my friends, and my children.

Night of the Creeps

Night of the Creeps
Night of the Creeps

What do you do when a colony of strange alien slugs lands on earth and starts using people as hosts for growing more alien slugs? Hook up with a wacked out cop and get a flame thrower, that’s what. Night of the Creeps takes a delightful turn as a comedy zombie film that’s aware of its own silliness. At one point, the wacky cop declares that their situation is “like a bad B-movie.” Ha ha!

Some thoughts:

  • Made just a year after Return of the Living Dead, the film captures the same blend of humor and zombies, even working in a more plausible reason for the zombies to lust after brains. That said, Creeps doesn’t reach quite the maniacal pace that Return manages. It’s good, but not great.
  • The best part of the movie is the police officer, who seems to be the long lost older brother of Dennis Farina. He answers the phone with phrases like “Thrill me,” and gets the best line in the movie (at the top of the poster on the left).
  • The frat-brother villains are too easily dispatched, IMO. This goes especially for the blonde-haired Greek jerkatron who gives our babyfaced “nerd” trouble. On that front, how do the two geeks get into the frat party to begin with?
  • As with any eighties movie involving sororities, there’s one shot of topless women that serves no purpose other than to show topless women. It’s part of a “the co-eds are getting ready for the formal” montage, which also includes women at a communal mirror putting on makeup. Then the camera moves to the bathroom and slowly pans across the shower stalls. So very eighties. Not as egregious as the similar sequence in Sorority House Massacre, but close.
  • I’m interested in re-watching Slither, as the same purpose and premise for the zombies returns in that film, including the yucky slugs. That film also has Nathan Fillion, so it wins in a fight.

Worth watching, but if you haven’t seen Return of the Living Dead or Slither, both of those films are better.