You get what you pay for

Nice comment on the ZeFrank conversation board about public education:

Like, take education. Everybody wrings hands about how our schools are failing, blah blah, but what the hell do you expect when teachers don’t get paid enough to actually live on? The elephant in the room is confronting people with the fact that they get what they pay for, and to shut the hell up if they’re not willing to pay for it. Except, you’d say it better than that.

Just thought it was an interesting comment.

yes. Yes. YES! HELLZ YEAH!

ZeFrank is currently kickstartering a new year of “The Show” called “A Show.”  It’s already funded, but you should get on that anyway.

In case you don’t know what I’m talking about: here you go.

Hell yeah.

Clout

University of Illinois by JanetandPhilFor those of you not in Illinois, the Chicago Tribune has been working on a long-form investigative journalism story about the University of Illinois now-defunct “Category I” admissions track that gave preferential treatment to applicants who were connected to influential people and lawmakers.  The newspaper uncovered a system that allowed lawmakers to put in special requests on behalf of prospective students whose applications got individual attention and appeal possibilities not available to unconnected students.

The scandal had wide-ranging consequences, including the resignation of the University president and several members of the board of trustees.  Since then (fall 2009), the Tribune has continued to investigate, trying to find direct evidence of correlation between influence, money, political backing, and the admissions tampering.

What I find most interesting is the fact that pretty much everyone involved who made the actual requests finds nothing wrong with having done so.  Two quotes from last Sunday’s article:

Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, asked about the application of a relative of Sam Borek, a Chicago real estate and banking lawyer who has given his campaigns more than $15,000 since 1995.

Lang said he became involved in the matter after Borek, who also is Lang’s former college roommate, called to say his family member was worried about getting into U. of I. despite a stellar academic record. Lang said he reviewed the relative’s grades and contacted the university.

The student was admitted, and Lang said there was no special treatment. He likened his involvement to calling a village hall on behalf of a resident who needs a pothole fixed.

and

No lawmakers who spoke to the Tribune believed they crossed the line by getting involved with the admissions process. They also said they didn’t know their inquiries would lead to applicants getting tracked through a special system.Bernard Judge, a member of the state Admissions Review Commission that investigated the university’s system, said the school shoulders the blame for the situation because it tried to appease lawmakers who control their funding.

“Their budgets were getting cut each year, and they weren’t getting the money promised to them,” he said. “They were trying to protect themselves, but they created a system that allowed all of this to happen.”

Commission member Ricardo Estrada, a new U. of I. trustee, said influential people including elected officials should have stayed out of the process, and the public should be able to decide if their inquiries were benign.

The issue, of course, is equality of access.  If influential lawmakers (particularly those who control the University’s purse strings) are allowed to interfere with the admissions process, even by calling to inquire, it means people who have access to those lawmakers get unequal treatment in the admissions process.

And as to the idea that this constitutes “no special treatment” — it’s just plain not true.  If lawmakers didn’t believe calling gave special consideration to the people they inquired about, they wouldn’t do it.  And in a system where there are limited slots, the individuals who don’t have a lawmaker to call on their behalf but had won an admissions spot (or a higher spot on the list) lose out because of this influence.

Regarding the pothole repair example given above, a village hall that operates this way is just as corrupt, by my way of thinking.  There should be a standard rule for setting a repair schedule of potholes, based on street usage, age of the street, and probably the order that pothole was reported in.  Any village hall that lets a city commissioner override the priorities assigned by the street repair folks gives unequal access to people friendly with city commissioners.  The fact that Lang (or most legislators) see this as an okay way to do business indicates just how corrupt local government is in Illinois.

Finally, I find it disingenuous to blame the people in admissions for building this secondary tracking system — it actually was a really good way to cover their asses.  If legislators want special treatment for connected applicants, making it a formal part of the system actually meant that if it was wrong to do — and surely it was — it would be open to public scrutiny.  By doing what their bosses told them to do, they are going with the idea that the legislature’s interference is accepted and appropriate, so why hide it?

Say it ain’t so, Barry

Game of Shadows
Game of Shadows

Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports
by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, narrated by Scott Brick

I’ll be honest: I knew almost nothing about the BALCO scandal before I read this book.  Sure, I knew that congress had some hearings about steroids, and that it turned out some of the dudes hitting home runs in the 1990s were juicers, but that’s about as far as my knowledge (or frankly, interest) went.  But Scott Brick is my favorite audio book narrator, so when I saw his name on the cover of this audio book, I had to check it out.  And man, I’m glad I did.

Game of Shadows tells the story of the rise and fall of Victor Conte, a self-styled health expert whose trade in illicit “performance enhancing drugs” brought down several elite track and field athletes, as well as catapulting the public shaming of many of the best baseball players of the last fifteen years.  A few quick thoughts:

  • The skill Fainaru-Wada and Williams use to reveal the story piece-by-piece works well, and is part of the reason investigative journalists often write the best books about this sort of thing.
  • The book gets a little bogged down in all the medical jargon and steroid language, but it stayed on the right side of that chasm, I thought, particularly by injecting the human drama of scandal, coverups, and emotion into the mix.
  • The authors also do a good job of painting a fair picture of Bonds that makes him both sympathetic and villainous.  As he sinks deeper into the hole he’s dug, he shifts away from sympathetic, and the authors introduce the detectives and scientists at the center of the anti-doping agencies.
  • I’ve discovered that for some reason, I don’t care for sports themselves, but I often enjoy reading sports writing.  The drama and excitement of sports comes through in the writing while the beer-swilling asshattery and expensive tickets and boring waits between the action stay where they belong, on television or at the stadium.
  • The book ends with a soft-ball call to arms about the drugs, chastising MLB for its  weak approach to the drug problem.  The authors compare the waffling, weak reaction of today’s baseball leaders with the vicious, perhaps unfair actions of the Black Sox justice man, Kennisaw Mountain Landis, the judge who banned the players with no sympathy for their situations under the pressure of baseball, and was apparently was a superhero with a blimp.

As I expected, Scott Brick does an excellent job narrating the book.  He doesn’t do voices, but when he reads dialogue, he gives it a little inflection that works just right.  At this point, I’ve listened to so many Scott Brick books that it’s a bit like hearing from an old friend.  That sounds weird, but the experience of an audio book is not unlike that of a long, intimate conversation, especially if you listen via headphones, as I usually do.  Thus, his readings have actually become a selling point for me.  Even without Brick, though, this is a great book.  It’s got drama, betrayal, excitement, and scandal.  I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

Here’s Jonathan Coulton singing a song about Landis.  NSFW.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WsTMke7G0Uo]

The Artist? Really?

I liked the Oscars, overall.  Billy Crystal’s tried and true movie montage was nice, as was his down-home demeanor.  I thought the Bridesmaids penis jokes were funny and the Robert Downey Jr. documentary thing worked, as did the Christopher Guest test audience and the Ben Stiller straight man routine.  I thought the awards were fine, though Viola Davis could have won Best Actress for my money (for whatever my opinion’s worth, since I didn’t see either movie).

But I’m disappointed that The Artist won Best Picture.  As I wrote a couple weeks ago:

I find myself feeling defensive about the fact that I didn’t really like The Artist very much.  While the film does a good job evoking the silent film era with nostalgia and drama, it doesn’t do much in the way of advancing the genre.  Instead of using the last 80 years of filmmaking experience to craft a silent film that challenges viewers to follow the narrative with the kind of story and meta-story common to today’s films, it tells a story no more complicated or compelling than those being made in films of the mid 20′s already.  For me, this is nostalgia without purpose, and ultimately a failed experiment.

If the other contenders for the Oscar this year are good films without being anything special, The Artist is a special film without being anything all that good.

2012-02-26 Tweets

  • Cracked article similar to my double reviews. Thx for head's up Rolfe. Mine: http://t.co/h4oHtlUW
    Theirs: http://t.co/Voe4UT4L #
  • This month's playlist includes Best of Men At Work. I dub "Dr. Heckle & Jive" one of the most annoying songs ever written. #
  • Frosty points out that the new 'steamy waterworld' sounds a lot like Mon Calimari. http://t.co/1v7glsUd #
  • Looking at George Washington on the one dollar bill, Avery tells me that he "looks so serious because his fake teeth are hurting him." #
  • Writing folk: Am having lunch with KB Yancey tomorrow. What would you ask her/ convo about? #
  • Family movie night victory: The Flight of the Navigator FTW. #
  • Hanging out in the chaos at Monkey Joe's in Aurora. Little ones everywhere! #

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The Skull Mantra

The Skull Mantra
The Skull Mantra

by Eliot Pattison

The Skull Mantra follows the investigations of Shan, a Chinese prisoner in a Tibetan labor camp, exiled for his mis-steps in the political minefield of Beijing.  When a headless corpse is discovered on the road leading out of town, Shen is recruited by the local military leader, Colonel Tan, to run a parallel investigation alongside the official Ministry of Justice inquiry.  The ensuing adventure digs down to the core of the Chinese presence in Tibet, to the essence of contemporary Communism and corruption, and to the vile treatment the Chinese government brings to bear on those who resist its rule.  A few thoughts:

  • We read this book for my mystery book club and while the mystery is solid and interesting, this is really a book about Tibet and its struggle under Chinese rule.  At the same time, Pattison does an excellent job including only information necessary for the telling of the story–or rather, building a story that necessitates telling a lot about how Tibetans live today.  The resolution of the mystery is pretty complex, but Pattison does a great job pulling all the threads together into a narrative that explains the mystery nicely.
  • The mystery is fraught with tension as our investigator must play his cards from a powerless position within a matrix of influences, political dangers, and secrecy.  The complex system of respect and language results in multifaceted conversations in which people say one thing, mean another, and accidentally reveal a third.
  • Comrade Shan is an intriguing character, a man with strong integrity who has come to embrace Buddhism late in life but still clings to secular ideas of justice and ethics.  He makes a good intermediary through which Western eyes like mine can view the events.
  • Boy, Americans sure come off looking dopey in this book.  Throughout the novel, the impending visit of American tourists looms over everyone’s actions, completely aware that to make the government look bad when the tourists show up would be the worst crime someone could commit.  Sure enough, they turn up at a critical time and the scene is darn funny for it.
  • My favorite scene is Shan’s visit to the rogyapa village, a place where Tibetans bring their corpses for sky burial (the ritual of cutting up the bodies to offer to vultures).  The people from the villages are both revered and shunned, objects of both admiration and fear.  There’s a funny moment where one of the soldiers is wrestling with some of the rogyapa children and they pull out toy cleavers and pretend to cut off his limbs to prepare him for sky burial.  Yikes.

The Skull Mantra is a lovely book, full of moving images and thoughtful language.  It has a complex mystery that takes real teasing out.  It reads a little slow in the beginning, but overall it’s quite good.

Inspector Lewis, series 4

Inspector Lewis
Inspector Lewis and Seargant Hathaway

I’ve been enjoying Inspector Lewis ever since he was DCS Lewis, assisting Inspector Morse.  Everyman Lewis and his brainy partner Hathaway work for Oxford CID, sleuthing out killers at Oxford University and its surrounding communities.  The most recent series really shows how the creators of the show have settled into the pattern the show will maintain for who knows how long (given that Inpsector Morse went for decades).  Consider the following:

  • DCI Robbie Lewis has a workingman’s background, so it’s not uncommon for him to bump into celebrity or intellectual superstardom and come away irritated, irritating, or both.  Such is the case with “Old, Unhappy, Far Off Things,” a particularly nasty and twisty episode that starts the series.
  • Hathaway is an usual Copper, and you usually have to have one episode where he ponders his choice to be a policeman over his choices to do other things.  In this series, “Wild Justice” revolves around the murder of a cleric visiting Oxford, so we get to learn a bit more about Hathaway’s near miss with Seminary.
  • At least one episode gives Lewis the opportunity to over-identify with the victim and take the death personally (or more personally than he should).  Throw in an old friend of his that ends up on the wrong side of the law and some conflict with the medical examiner that he’s too dense to understand, and you’ve got another classic Inspector Lewis episode. “Wild Justice.”
  • But don’t forget about the intelligentsia and the connected conspiracy plot!  Both turn up in “The Gift of Promise,” along with a dose of Robbie’s chief scolding him to tread carefully on the well-connected toes he’s investigating.
  • One of the episodes in this series included a sub-plot where Hathaway learned that another CID office had an opening for a detective, something the young officer was considering applying for; at the same time, Lewis got a note from his daughter that she was having a baby and would like him to retire and move nearer to where she lives.  Both characters wanted to stay where they were, but neither wanted to make a decision until he knew what the other was going to do, nor did they want to pressure the other to stay if they didn’t want to.  It was an amusing bit of rom-com character tension for a police procedural.

Inspector Lewis has a meditative air not unusual for the BBC mysteries, plus a solid ability to reveal just enough of the plot for you to know something mysterious is going on but not enough to see through to the end of the story.  The 100-minute format gives them enough time to add sub-plots and twists that bring depth and surprise where shorter shows (like Bones) must resort to cliches in order to finish stories.   Definitely worth a watch, if this is your bag.  Here’s hoping we’ll see lots more series of Inspector Lewis, with Inspector Hathaway to follow.

Oddly, when I searched my archives to create the “see also” link that would lead you back to older entries about Inspector Lewis, I realized I’d never written any, hence the mix of introductory material and the tone that implies you already know everything you need to about the series.

ImagiNext, “boys’ toys,” and a cold bucket of water

First, a video that you should watch, if you haven’t heard of it yet:

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CU040Hqbas]

A couple quick anecdotes:

  • When Finn and I were perusing the Target toy aisles this winter (sometime in late November, I believe), two 8yo girls walked by us, one complaining quite loudly that “Toys for boys are so much cooler than toys for girls.”
  • The favorite kind of toys in my household right now are ImagiNext, a series of action-oriented toys centered around dinosaurs, ninjas, space exploration, pirates, and other cool stuff.  The toys are wicked cool and built to the same scale, so you can mix dinosaurs with pirates and so on.  Both kids like ImagiNext toys quite a bit, so we’ve been accumulating them in both bedrooms for a while now.  While I was driving a babysitter home last week, she commented that none of the ImagiNext figures were women.

A small note regarding theory:

I recall reading about the nature of gendered toys and play with regard to the idea of action as a way of thinking about spaces.  Henry Jenkins, in his essay “The Complete Freedom of Movement,” draws a distinction between the exploratory activities often encouraged of young boys and the sedentary activities encouraged of girls.  I confess that I do not remember the ancestry of this idea, but suspect he was repurposing it from someone else–to that unnamed scholar, I apologize for not citing you here.

I lament the lack of female figures for the ImagiNext line, but I’m even more appalled that I hadn’t noticed it before.  As a (hopefully) thoughtful, liberal, 21st century feminist, I consistently need to revisit my own perspective lest my male privilege blind me to things my adolescent babysitters recognize immediately.  I use the Bechdel test to check myself as I ponder the nature of films, and I watch my daughter as she grows up in a world more welcoming and proactive than pretty much any before, yet still rife with sexism and latent misogyny.

And I wonder about how much of this is ingrained, as my three-year-old son regularly points out who is a boy and who is a girl, and asserts that some things are “for boys” and some things are “for girls.”  I know this rigid categorization is part of the age he’s at, but it’s still wondrous and bizarre to me.

On Microphones and Light Sabres

I wanted the pink sparkly one.
I wanted the pink sparkly one.

I remember seeing one of the extras for a Star Wars prequel, probably Attack of the Clones, in which Ewan MacGregor discusses the laborious process by which each actor selected the light sabre he wanted to use.  The propmasters discussed it with him, brought him several options, etc etc.

I can’t help but imagine that the microphone bedazzlers for the Super Bowl production had similar conversations with Madonna, Blake Lively, Nicki Minaj and the others.

Just saying.

I Hate You, You and Your Sick Experiments!

Beyond Reanimator
Beyond Reanimator

Beyond Re-Animator

This third segment in the Re-Animator series is delightful–much better than I thought it would be.   After the disastrous outing of his experiments at the end of Bride of Re-Animator (or perhaps another set of experiments in a different cemetery), Herbert West is in prison, doing experiments in full-on MacGuyver mode (or perhaps Escape from Alcatraz mode).  When a young doctor, the brother of a woman killed by an earlier graduate of West’s School of the Dead, shows up to help West continue his experiments in the basement of the prison, you know things are going to get weird.  A few thoughts:

  • Jeffrey Combs once again shows his power at playing a detached madman bent on harnessing the secrets of life and death.  Throughout the film, West operates without emotion, showing only disdain for saccharine emotions like pity, and a little taste for revenge in his treatment of the warden.   Combs does this brilliantly, using his big eyes to maximum effect behind his early 80s glasses, which have stuck with him through the early 2000s.  (See the clip below)
  • As far as zombie movies go, the Re-Animator series is a bit far afield of the usual films, as the creatures being reanimated are much closer to Frankenstein’s monster (with or without sense) than are most zombies.  This film also provides the interesting proposition that the reanimated people keep some but not all their personalities.  West’s research has progressed enough that he knows how to make the zombies sensible–he must combine the reagent (the famous glowing green substance from the other films) with an electrical essence that can be pulled from a donor host (at the cost of its life, alas).  Alas, it seems as though the electrical essence functions somewhat like a soul, imparting some of the donor’s personality and knowledge into the recipient.  The human who undergoes this procedure late in the film ends up with aspects of both people inside.
  • Of course, the entire Re-Animator series turns on the Frankensteinian caution that to mess with death is to defy nature.  West operates without conscience, interested only in his own research and its results.  Note the coldness with which he explains his error to Howard–“It was a theory.”  His calculating nature fits the image propegated by anti-science zealots, who imagine stem-cell researchers and bio-engineers as contemporary Doctors Moreau, building monstrous hybrids with no concern for what’s right or wrong.
It ain't easy being re-animated
It ain't easy being re-animated
  • Beyond Re-Animator falls squarely into the humor/horror genre that the previous films have embraced.  For a film made after the turn of the century, it’s remarkably visceral, eschewing (as far as I can tell) nearly all digital effects in favor of practical ones.  The dissolving drug-hippie prisoner stands out as particularly squishy, and his disastrous reaction to the reagent in his live body ends up being the silliest part of the film.
  • While at first blush the plot seems very different, its core remains the same: West and his assistant make monstrous discoveries and trouble ensues as they attempt to cover those experiments up.  The assistant’s lady friend finds herself menaced or more, and chaos follows at the end of the film.  The prison setting has had little effect on West’s efforts, and the overall narrative echoes the previous films enough to share purpose with them, but differs enough that it feels new and fresh.

Here’s my favorite moment:

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYxqBMguZEo]

Overall, Beyond Re-Animator is a delightful addition to the series, and well-worth watching if you like your mad scientists to be a little funny.

The Map of Time

The Map of Time
The Map of Time

The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma

The Map of Time is a Victorian-age time travel adventure that follows three or four different small tales, each bouncing off H.G. Wells and ultimately weaving together.  It’s well-written and enjoyable, but ultimately it didn’t grab me as much as many of the critics seem to have been grabbed.  A few thoughts:

  • It’s always interesting when an author uses an historical figure as a character.  In this case, H.G. Wells becomes a central figure in the narrative, and I can’t help but wonder how much of the author’s characterizations stem from biographical information–but the question doesn’t push me enough to pursue the question myself.  If I were to write a story that used a real person, I would feel strange about it, I think.  Given the personal musing and nature of much of the story, I’d be particularly uncomfortable doing so.
  • The narrating voice is a quirky character throughout the book, often explaining its decision to tell the story a certain way based on the fact that it knows everything but only wants to include the interesting bits for us to read.  It reminds me of the narrative voice Andrew Kozma uses in one of his as-yet unpublished novels, something that undermines the reader’s easy place as anonymous imbiber of the story.
  • Palma does a good job of creating characters with a variety of motives and personalities.  In particular, one character named Tom is driven mostly by his lust, but he afterward comes to love and thereby to act nobly.  That said, I don’t like him very much and feel bad for the woman he pursued.
  • I expected for the adventure and historical characters to be much more like The Arcanum, in which A.C. Doyle, Houdini, and H.P. Lovecraft work together to stop Alastair Crowley doing bad stuff, or even The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.   The cover also gave me the impression that this would be  steampunk time travel adventure.  Instead, the narrative is much tighter, less fantastical, and less adventurous.

Spoiler alert – detailed discussion of the book below:

  • If you see a film about con men, you know the filmmaker is going to be pulling a fast one on the audience while the con men are pulling fast ones on their marks.  If you read a book where it turns out that someone, early in the novel, is a fraud, it’s hard not to see later frauds coming a mile away.  What I really want to know is whether the author intended us to foresee the fraud in later episodes or not.  Anyone else who has read the book, did you see the later frauds coming?
  • I was actually pretty annoyed at how little time travel this novel actually has.  When I read a time travel novel, I want to ponder the weirdness of the idea of time travel.  I want to see the characters discover the nature of predestination and so on.  Instead, this novel uses the parallel universe theory (I think that’s the one) in which a new universe spawns with each decision, so making a change to the timeline spawns a new timeline.  But he doesn’t really explain how those universes connect together, nor how one would choose one over another.  (To be very spoilery — it’s unclear to me, but I think the last time traveler we see in the novel is actually stranded in another universe by her own actions, which she performed at someone else’s behalf.)

 

One million dollars!

The Amazing Race 20
The Amazing Race 20

We decided to let Avery (6) watch The Amazing Race with us this season.  She stays up late enough to catch it (nearly) live, and it’s a fun way to introduce her to ‘real’ television (meaning broadcast television in which she can’t just watch the next episode immediately).  It’s also fun to watch her enjoy the story and see what she likes about it.  It was funny to see how Avery decided who she wanted to cheer for to start with (she picked the first team to get booted, alas).  We had to do a little explaining about how people act in ways they shouldn’t when they get upset — I imagine explaining the bad behavior will be instructive.  It’s also interesting to feel myself cringe when the inappropriate moments appear and go right over her head — as when one player commented that another team had “badunkadunk.”

The winning moment of the night was as follows.  When the Ringling Brothers/ Barnum and Bailey Circus clowns (second couple from the left, sitting on the ground in the photo) found themselves behind the pack and feeling lost, I was looking for a word to say “incompetent” that Avery could understand and paused:

Me: The clowns are looking…
Avery: silly?

All three grown-ups laughed so hard we had to pause the show.  Child viewers FTW.