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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

College Elitism

College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be Cover
Cleaning out my office, I found an interesting book review written by CUNY history professor Richard Wolin in The Nation, May 21, 2012. Wolin discusses College; What It Was, Is, and Should Be by Andrew Delbanco, a distinguished humanities professor at Columbia University.

The review and the book focus on the elitism that now thoroughly permeates American higher education. Forget the ideal of meritocracy:
"He [Delbanco] notes that whereas the child of a family earning at least $90,000 a year stands a 50 percent chance of receiving a BA by the time he or she turns 24, for a child whose annual family income is in the range of $60,000 to $90,000, the odds diminish to one in four. For someone from a household with an annual income of $35,000 or less, they plummet to one in seventeen....
Delbanco explains further that the children of affluent families are four times more likely to be admitted to a prestigious, highly selective university than students with comparable grades and test scores from families of more modest means."
You probably already know why these statistics are important, but here's a well-known stat referenced in the review:
"Over a lifetime, someone with a bachelor’s degree will earn an average of $2.1 million, nearly twice as much as someone with only a high school diploma."
Moreover, given what graduation from an elite colleges means for entry into a host of professions and professional networks, Delbanco concludes that "top universities perpetuate the perquisites of privilege rather than ameliorate them in a democratic manner." There's more:
"To judge by all the evidence available, American higher education today more closely approximates the dystopian image of the 'nightmare society' than it does the egalitarian 'pipe dream' that would be more in keeping with the democratic aspirations of our founding."
Towards the end of the essay, Wolin addresses the content of higher education, not merely the access to it. For example, he references Dewey on the importance of critical thinking, autonomy, and "participatory learning" for fostering democratic citizenship. He also cites de Tocqueville on the dangers of majoritarian tyranny, which he says higher education can help counter by promoting nonconformity.

The key passage from the conclusion echoes a point made by a long line of critical theorists, though the author refers to Plato and Rousseau:
"One of the central problems of undergraduate education today is that it increasingly reinforces the “instrumentalist” view that the major decisions in life concern the efficient selection of means rather than a reflection on ends. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that higher education has been degraded to the status of an enfeebled auxiliary to reigning social and economic interests." 
My youngest daughter is entering her senior year in high school, so we've been looking at some elite schools, some of the top flagship state schools, and a smattering of liberal arts schools that emphasize her particular interests.

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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Breaking Bad Deadpool

Earlier this week, I participated in an on-line draft for political scientist Steve Saideman's "Breaking Bad" Deadpool game. Let's begin with a description of the game:
I have twelve players and twenty four characters (at least as far as I can count) who may or may not live to see the end of the Breaking Bad finale.  This means that in the draft (to be explained below), everyone will pick two characters that they think will survive.  Three points for those characters that are alive when the show is over--if the show makes a leap forward in time and has only one character alive, so be it.  One point if they are in a coma or near-death like situation that is unresolved.  Oh, and to make it interesting: -1 point for the first character to die in the final eight episodes.
Oh, and for a three part tiebreaker: you will have to email me at the end of the draft the name of who you think will be the last person killed, how they will be killed and by whom.  
So, this is the list of characters Steve provided for the 12 participants in his  "Breaking Bad" deadpool:
Walt Jr./Flynn (dying under either name counts for both)
Holly (the baby--yes, we have no humanity--Walt lost his, and we lost ours when we rooted for Walt)
Steven Gomez (the DEA sidekick)
Ted Beneke
Skinny Pete
Todd (formerly of Friday Night Lights)
Andrea, Jesse's former girlfriend
Brock (Andrea's kid)
Bogdan (the guy who used to run the car wash)
Kaylee (Mike's grand-daughter)
Group Leader played by Jere Burns--from Jesse's addiction treatment group
Gretchen Schwartz (one of Walt's former business partners)
Lawson (Jim Beaver, the arms dealer)\
Old Joe (the guy with the wrecking yard)
Huell, Saul's bodyguard
Declan, the new drug dealer
I encountered two big problems when I tried to partake. First, Steve did not receive my draft list email until the morning after the draft. I was going out on draft night, so knew I couldn't make live picks. Fortunately, I checked into the results board mid-draft and discovered the problem, so my draft card wasn't a total disaster. More on that later.

Second, I missed this proof-of-life warning: "Folks who never show up in the final eight get bumpkus/zip/zero/nil."

I never really took that warning into account. Indeed, my solution to the first problem was simply to post my complete rank ordering of possible picks on the comments board mid-draft:
Group Leader played by Jere Burns
Gretchen Schwartz 
Lawson (the arms dealer)
Old Joe 
Walt Jr./Flynn 
Ted Beneke
Skinny Pete
Badger (aka Brandon Mayhew)
Steven Gomez 
And now, for the results of the draft:
Players1st pick2nd pick
RobKayleeSteve Gomez
CaitlinSkylerGroup leader
Kelsey HuellBrock
WendyHankSkinny Pete
SaraMarieWalt Jr.  
MattOld JoeLydia
Blue means likely to live and be relevant, red means likely to be dead (using Nate Silver's prediction machine). 
I've got some serious proof-of-life problems with my picks. Steve doesn't mention that Gretchen Schwartz is Walt's ex-girlfriend. Or that she hasn't appeared on the show since April 2009.

Lawson the gun-dealer has been on the show a couple of times in the last two seasons, but actor Jim Beaver strongly implies in a recent interview that he was not invited for additional filming for the last half of season 5.

But there's hope.

First, Gretchen. In a NY Times story from mid-May 2013, actress Jessica Hecht apparently revealed a potential spoiler:
Jessica Hecht was filming in Albuquerque last year, reprising her role as the lost love of Walter White’s youth on the concluding season of “Breaking Bad,” when she got a call from Lynne Meadow, the artistic director of Manhattan Theater Club, asking how soon she could be back in New York for a reading of a new play
Look around on the internet, and you'll find speculation that Walt's cancer is back, which might cause him to connect with his former lover and colleague. Also, some people have suggested that the Walt Whitman poetry book Hank finds in the last episide may have been a gift from Gretchen. The inside note is signed GB. Walter's last name is White and some say her maiden name was Black [White plus Black = company name Gray Matter]. Of course, Schwartz is German for black, so this idea about her initials may just by hooey. Worse series creative force Vince Gilligan says dead meth scientist Gale Boetticher gave Walt the book.

Dunno about all that fun stuff, but I think we'll see Gretchen again.

Second, Lawson the gun dealer appears prominently in the opening sequence of season 5, selling Walt an M60 machine gun and ammunition. This remarkable opening scene was a flash-forward to a time period that we have not yet viewed. Walt has a full head of hair and a beard, along with a false New Hampshire ID and a different vehicle from those we've previously known. This must occur some months into the future after Hank finds the poetry book.

Like Checkhov's gun, the M60 is almost certainly going to figure prominently in the resolution of the series. I'm hoping Lawson himself will re-appear in an extended re-play of that transaction. Potentially, no new filming would have been required for this to happen.

Still, my challenge is significant. These long-lost or minor characters have to appear in the upcoming episodes -- and then they have to survive. This is my tiebreaker scenario:
Last person killed: Walt
Killed: gun battle
By whom: law enforcement
I'm looking forward to the final half-season, which begins August 11.

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Friday, July 26, 2013

Think from the gut

Remember the 2006 White House Correspondent's Dinner performance by Stephen Colbert? This was the terrific opening segment:
Mr. President, my name is Stephen Colbert, and tonight it is my privilege to celebrate this president, ‘cause we're not so different, he and I. We both get it. Guys like us, we're not some brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We're not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut. Right, sir? 
That's where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. Now, I know some of you are going to say, "I did look it up, and that's not true." That's 'cause you looked it up in a book. Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that's how our nervous system works. 
Here's the video:

According to this story in the July/August 2013 Mother Jones, Colbert was actually on to something:
The gut has its own nervous system; it contains as many neurons as the spinal cord. About 95 percent of the body's serotonin, a neurotransmitter usually discussed in the context of depression, is produced in the gut.... 
So the gut isn't just where we absorb nutrients. It's also an immune hub and a second brain.
More, from Scientific American, February 2010.

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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Buy an E-Z Pass

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation
Federal Highway Administration

Do you drive frequently on tollways? If so, you should buy an E-ZPass.

Why? Well, Lindsay Abrams reported an interesting health benefit involving E-Z Pass in the June 2013 Atlantic.
Exposure to pollution matters, too. One of the more inventive recent studies involves, of all things, E‑ZPass. The toll-collection system eased traffic on New Jersey and Pennsylvania highways, improving air quality, which seems to have in turn affected fetal health. Among pregnant women living within a mile or so of an E-ZPass toll plaza, premature births fell by 8.6 percent, and low birth weight, by 9.3 percent. [Emphasis in original.]
Abrams references Currie and Walker, “Traffic Congestion and Infant Health” (American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, Jan. 2011).

The short Abrams piece cites a number of other studies involving maternal and fetal health. It turns out that nuclear fallout is bad for newborns, but you would have guessed that. The piece also references data suggesting that national tragedies (think 9/11) and war are also harmful to fetuses -- but so is famine. Indeed, even voluntary fasting during regular religious holidays seems to have unfortunate health consequences for babies.

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Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Global Ecopolitics, fall books

I'm teaching POLS 335 this fall, "Global Ecopolitics." I adopted that course title many years ago because it echoes a phrase often used by a faculty member (Dennis Pirages) at my PhD-granting institution, University of Maryland. Essentially, however, the course is about "Global Environmental Politics."

This is the first time I've taught the course since 2009 as my last scheduled section was handed off to a colleague when I was elected Department chair back in 2011.

The large gap means that the course needs entirely new textbooks. Once again, I've decided to emphasize climate change in the course. Instead of also addressing the "bottom billion" as it did previously, the class is going to focus on raw materials scarcity.

The books:

The Race for What's Left: The Global Scramble for the World's Last Resources CoverThe Race for What's Left: The Global Scramble for the World's Last Resources


ISBN13: 9781250023971
ISBN10: 1250023971 

Pwws - Polity Whats Wrong #7: What's Wrong with Climate Politics and How to Fix It CoverWhat's Wrong with Climate Politics and How to Fix It


ISBN13: 9780745652511
ISBN10: 0745652514 

What We Know about Climate Change (Boston Review Books) Cover

What We Know about Climate Change


ISBN13: 9780262018432
ISBN10: 0262018438

Disclosure: If you use those links to order from Powell's Books, the blog receives 7.5% of the purchase price.

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