Chapter Seven Shuffle
I haven't done a mix-tape post in ages, and I've posted a lot of tiresomely political stuff recently, so I might as well do something frivolous. This one is a companion of sorts to "Excalibur 2.5.1": I made both of them one weekend back in 1999, because I needed something to listen to during the long hours I was spending in front of the computer writing my thesis. These are even more random than usual, because I didn't want to spend much time changing tapes, and as a result, they remain some of my favorite mixes.
- "Tomorrow Wendy," by Concrete Blonde. I first heard this on a mix made for my sister by one of her friends, and loved the creepy atmospherics. It's not a song you could easily put in the middle of a tape, but it's a good place to start.
- "Cold Cold Ground," by Tom Waits. I listened to a little bit of Tom Waits in college, but got back into him, and bought a bunch of records, after this song was used in an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street (Best... Cop Show... Ever!).
- "American Pie," by Don McLean. Yeah, it's dorky, but when you're in the car, and it comes on the radio, you sing along. Don't even try to deny it.
- "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," by the Beatles. Abbey Road and the White Album are the soundtrack for my earliest memories. It's a slightly odd transition, I'll grant, but I think it works.
- "Out All Night," by the Pietasters. Sometimes you just need to hear happy, bouncy ska. The lyrics don't really bear listening to, but it's just a fun song.
- "Rudie Can't Fail," by the Clash. Chuck Klosterman observed that you can't go wrong by ripping off the Clash. Or by putting them on a mix tape.
- "John the Baptist," by the Afghan Whigs. A turn for the sinister. Some might say that their habit of giving songs titles like "John the Baptist" is part of the reason the Whigs failed to achieve the commercial success they deserved. Which is a pity, because it's a kick-ass song.
- "Awful," by Hole. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Celebrity Skin is a sell-out album. How can you tell? Because it has songs I'm willing to listen to more than once.
- "A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation)," by the Meat Puppets. I really didn't have anywhere to go after the Hole song, so things get a little weird. It's a cover of a Marty Robbins song, with wonderfully ragged guitar.
- "Mack the Knife," by Bobby Darin. I had to see a Brecht and Weill opera once, for a class in college, and found it almost unbearable. They had a way with a tune, though...
- "Never You Mind," by Semisonic. This is built around a piano riff that drills into your head and stays there. It's one of those songs that simultaneously seems to go on forever, and yet end too soon. Also: The lyric "Shakin' my mind like an Etch-a-Sketch erasin'" is an important influence on OutKast: discuss.
- "When I'm Dead and Gone," by Fury in the Slaughterhouse. Leave it to the Germans to pick the cheery band names. This opens with the signature drum riff from "D'Yer Mak'Er," and slides into a clanking, rattling sing-along that's much bouncier than the title and band name would suggest.
- "The Broad Majestic Shannon," by the Pogues. The lyrics might make more sense if I knew more about Ireland. Or maybe not. Tough call. Fun song, though.
- "Far Away Eyes," by the Rolling Stones. A song that has forever liked "Thank you Jesus, Thank you Lord" with "I was so pleased to be informed of this, I ran twenty red lights in His honor."
- "Be My Downfall," by Del Amitri. A very pretty song about the singer cheating on his girlfriend. A Del Amitri specialty, that...
- "Velvet Morning," by the Verve. I'm not quite sure how this ended up in this spot on the tape. Really, the first three songs on this side are just really good songs that I didn't already have on another tape.
- "Stolen Car," by Beth Orton. Finally, a pattern emerges. Sort of. This is one of only two songs on Central Reservation to resolves as songs in my mind, and it follows nicely from the Verve track.
- "Have a Little Faith in Me," by John Hiatt. This is the full-band version off one of his "Best of" packages, not the piano-only version on whichever album that is. As he remarks in the liner notes, this is sort of his bid for the "first dance at a wedding" audience.
- "Out of My Head," by Fastball. A nice little alterna-pop song. Not much else to say about it, really.
- "66," by the Afghan Whigs. Greg Dulli's seductive act is somewhat undermined by slightly goofy lyrics ("little rabbit?"), but it's a great tune all the same.
- "Malibu," by Hole. I didn't set out to always follow a song from 1965 with a song from Celebrity Skin. It just happened that way.
- "Joey," by Concrete Blonde. She might almost be singing to the same guy from the previous song...
- "Saint Dominic's Preview," by Van Morrison. You can find helpfully annotated lyrics for this song on the Van Morrison Website. Unfortunately, in the helpful annotations, you'll find Van the Man admitting that he has no idea what it's about.
- "When a Man Loves a Woman," by Percy Sledge. Two movie scenes come to mind when I hear this: Either the opening shots of The Crying Game, or a priest in The Commitments saying "It was Percy Sledge sang that particular song..." My brain is weird.
- "Sunday Morning Coming Down," by Sean Mullins. A cover of a Kris Kristofferson song, previously recorded by Johnny Cash and various other people. It's a perfectly good version of the song, and the second side ended up being awfully mellow as it was, so it seemed a reasonable way to end.
As I said at the beginning, this is very much a companion to the "Excalibur 2.5.1" mix. So much so that I have trouble remembering which songs are on which tape (it doesn't help that I never got around to labeling the cases). They've each got a few slow stretches, and I could probably come up with an absolutely killer mix tape by swapping songs around between the two, but that would be cheating...
In Which the Author Applies Recently-Acquired Knowledge Regarding the Theory and Analysis of Literary Works to Significant Works of History
In my earlier post about Boskone, I forgot to mention that, in the course of the Mary Sue panel, Teresa Nielsen Hayden mentioned that, in slash fiction, there's an inverse proportion between "the amount of actual fucking and the need for characters to die." She attributed this to Joanna Russ (if memory serves), who apparently went on to observe that The Left Hand of Darkness might also be analyzed in this manner.
I realized this morning (prompted by an off-hand remark of Kate's) that Sethra Lavode is another work that could be said to fit this pattern. I just thought I'd share that.
Last night, I went to a talk on campus by Robert F Kennedy Jr. (the bio used for his introduction is here), who came to campus as part of a seminar series on environmental science and policy. When he first got to the podium, I thought we were in for a long night, as he turned out to be suffering from a bit of laryngitis, which prompted many pauses for sips of water, and more than a few stretches where he had a voice like a duck. After a rocky (and squeaky) beginning, though, he gave a good if not particularly focused talk, speaking for over an hour with a good deal of passion about the topic.
He didn't formally break the talk down into a particular structure (at one point, he remarked "This whole talk has turned into a digression," which was pretty accurate), but it could reasonably be divided into three parts, each presenting a different argument in favor of environmental laws and environmentalism in general. The first half-hour or so dealt with environmentalism as democracy-- returning power to individuals and communities, to assert their ownership over public resources. Most of this was taken up with a detailed history of the Riverkeeper organization, which grew out of a fisherman's organization on the Hudson river, and is devoted to seeking out and suing polluters.
After that, he changed gears fairly abruptly, and talked about environmentalism as "restoring the free market." I'm not sure what kicked this off-- maybe he spotted an economics professor in the crowd-- but he went on for a good fifteen minutes or so about how most environmental troubles are actually distortions of the free market. If large corporations were forced to actually pay the full cost of their businesses, including clean-up and disposal of waste products, he claimed, the free market would take care of almost everything. I'm not sure I really buy this logic, but he did a good job of pointing out that companies arguing against environmental regulation on free market grounds while receiving gigantic government subsidies don't really have their free market principles down.
The final bit took a weird turn into spiritual arguments for environmentalism. This was probably the weakest section in terms of actual argument (his claim that the frequent appearance of wilderness in religious texts (Buddha under the tree, Mohammed meeting an angel in the wilderness, Jesus in the desert, and the Jews wandering for forty years) demonstrates the deep spiritual importance of pristine natural areas struck me as a bit of a stretch), but the strongest for flowery rhetoric. The line about how "we know Michelangelo not through reading his biography, but through looking at the Sistine Chapel," and that the best way to know God is to look at the natural world was very nice.
He hammered on the Bush administration throughout, citing numerous environmental laws that have been rolled back, and predicting catastrophe if the current administration and Congress continue. The high point of the evening probably came during the question and answer period, when an audience member launched into a weird question-free monologue about how Kennedy was being too harsh on Bush, because there's a war on and all. The response slid off into Howard Dean "Angry Democrat" territory a little ("They sell these books, Fifty Things You Can Do for the Environments. Don't buy the books-- if you want to do something for the environment, get rid of George Bush!"), and I think the claim that our current Middle East problems could've been avoided entirely if we'd kept the original Carter era CAFE standards was hopelessly naive, but it was definitely an impassioned critique of current policy, and it got a huge ovation from everybody other than the original monologist.
All in all, it was a pretty good talk, as such things go. It was maybe a bit long on talk of his own achievements, but then that's why we bring famous people in. He also kept the family stuff to a minimum-- a couple of mentions of going to visit "my uncle in the White House" during a story about peregrine falcons at the Old Post Office (which led him to become a licensed master falconer), and how they were wiped out by DDT. He had a good number of sound-bite lines ("pollution-based prosperity" was a favorite), but he delivered them in a plausibly natural way, and was quite a good speaker.
Really, the duck voice was the only problem.
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What I Learned at the SF Convention
With the Tenure Wars having ground down into a stalemate, and bored most of the readership away, I should really comment about my weekend. Kate has already posted a detailed report of what she did at Boskone, and she has links to some other reports. I'm not conscientious enough to give as detailed a wrap-up as Kate did, but I'll post a few comments while I complete my morning re-caffeination.
Things I learned at Boskone 41:
- If you want to write realistic fantasy, economics is important, and constrains even kings. (From George R. R. Martin's observation that "You never see Denethor fretting about how much the war is going to cost. Or Sauron, for that matter.")
- If you're going to go to panels featuring people you know, have good questions. (Patrick Nielsen Hayden saw me raise my hand at one point, and told the moderator to call on me. While this was flattering, the question I was asking didn't really merit the attention. Even if it did kick off a spirited discussion about editorial credits on books.)
- Someone out there is writing slash fiction featuring Tor editors. (Kate mentioned this in her report, but it's so boggling that I needed to mention it as well. Also, I'd like to tap into the vast flood of traffic that will no doubt come from "Tor Editor Slash" Google searches...)
- Space is no longer cool, and it's all the media's fault. (From the panel on "The Public's Changing Vision of the Future," which was very disappointing. It was far too focused on space issues (perhaps not surprising, given the presence of an Actual Rocket Scientist on the panel), when I think there would've been a far more interesting discussion to be had regarding public perceptions of biotech and nanotech and other cool buzzwords. Also, there was a little too much geekly contempt for the general public, and Allen Steele and Steve Miller do go on...)
- It's extremely difficult to blow up hydroelectric dams. (From the macroengineering panel. I don't really have anything to add to that.)
- Studies of monkey grooming behavior and corporate organization indicate that the maximum effective size of a working group is 150. Also, there's a group of 200 people who secretly run everything in America. This pretty much explains everything. (From the panel on tipping points.)
- If there are people at a con that you'd like to talk to, make plans to meet them somewhere, rather than assuming that you'll see them at a party. (Assumptions are dangerous things to make.)
- DVD special features are a lot of fun. (OK, I already knew that.)
- Glen Cook has a new Garrett novel in the pipeline somewhere, and is working on a serial killer novel and the first novel in a new fantasy series. (From the dealer's room. Also, the British edition of Quicksilver has a much cooler cover than the American edition.)
- Jim Macdonald knows a lot of strange facts about the Knights Templar. (And you should go buy and read The Apocalypse Door if you haven't already.)
- Teresa Nielsen Hayden is fantastically entertaining on the subject of Mary Sue stories. (Not a surprise to regular readers of Making Light and comments therein, but a panel well worth delaying our departure for.)
- There are Mary Sue elements in girly books ("The main character is beautiful, has magic powers, and a telepathic white horse..."), at least for the 13-year-old girl set. (Kate mentioned this during the Mary Sue panel, specifically citing Mercedes Lackey. It occurs to me that this is probably not unrelated to the fact that male characters in YA books tend to be personality-challenged (see "Potter, Harry" and "Stanton, Will"), but I didn't mention it at the panel, and there is not space in this margin to contain the explanation...)
Tenure: Threat or Menace? (The Saga Continues...)
Commenters to the previous post about teachers' unions have inevitably brought up the "Why do teachers have tenure, anyway?" question. I've talked about this before, back in the early days of this blog, but it's worth a few more comments.
As with the "Unions are Eeeevil" attitude mentioned in the previous post, the problem largely stems from a misunderstanding of how education works. To steal a phrase from a recent (contentious) campus debate, it's not like we're filling buckets with nails, here. Education, and teaching in particular, is not something you can evaluate by the same means you use to evaluate consumer goods.
For one thing, there's no generally agreed upon objective standard for good teaching. If you're working as a design engineer, it's easy to measure performance: either you deliver a working design, or you don't. If you don't, you're incompetent, and should be fired. If you're working as a computer programmer, it's easy to measure performance: either you deliver working computer code, or you don't. If you don't, you're incompetent, and apparently deserve to be paid huge sums of money to write everything that ends up on my computer.
With teaching, it's hard to even come up with a criterion for success that everybody will agree upon. Standardized tests for students are a common suggestion, and probably the most efficient way to attempt to measure teaching performance (either you deliver students who can pass the test, or you don't), but they're rife with problems. For one thing, the existence of operations like the Princeton Review should serve to demonstrate that it's possible to train students to pass standardized tests without teaching them anything. And there are decades worth of papers in physics education circles demonstrating that it's entirely possible to teach students to solve Halliday and Resnick type problems without actually teaching them anything about physics. In fact, it's probably easier to teach students to score well by doing a bad job of teaching the subject than it is to actually educate them.
(The problem here stems in part from a lack of agreement about what public education is supposed to accomplish. If you want to train students to be able to regurgitate memorized facts, standardized tests are a fine way to go about it. If you'd like to teach them to think for themselves, standardized tests are a lousy evaluation tool. Many of the problems facing education could be made to go away (I wouldn't say "solved") by reaching some sort of agreement on what, exactly, we'd like the schools to be doing.)
Standardized tests are a major problem, even before you get into questions about who gets to write the tests, what goes on them, how they're administered, and all the rest. And you can just forget about using local exams as an evaluation tool...
On top of that, it's also hard to use subjective criteria to evaluate teaching. Again, this is an area where education is fundamentally different from other businesses. If you're producing some sort of deliverable good, the happiness of your customers is a reasonably good gauge of your base competence. If your customers are basically happy, you're at least not doing a bad job. If they're unhappy, there's a problem. If you're in a service industry position, the happiness of your customers is really the only way you have to evaluate performance.
Subjective criteria ("Are the customers happy?") work for most businesses, because there are basically no jobs in the manufacturing or service sectors where pissing off your customers is an essential part of the process. You're supposed to be delivering what they want, and keeping them happy along the way is part of your job.
Unfortunately, teaching is the rare example of a field where you're often required to upset the customers in order to do your job well. Students come into classrooms believing all sorts of stupid things, and frequently, the first step to teaching them is to expose and break down their pre-existing misconceptions. Only after the wrong ideas have been beaten out of them can they begin to learn the concepts correctly. This happens all the time in physics-- students entering intro physics classes frequently have a very Aristotelian view of motion ("Moving objects stop because it is in their nature to be stationary."), which has to be demonstrated to be false before you can proceed with Newtonian physics.
Some people find this very upsetting. It's especially bad when the pre-existing misconceptions stem from deeply held religious or cultural beliefs. Still, if you want to teach science (or subjects touching on issues of class, race, and gender), there's no way to proceed without upsetting those beliefs. Which leads to the odd situation where the teacher who has his or her students' parents the most outraged with his performance may actually be the one who's doing the best job.
And this doesn't even touch the issues of different learning and teaching styles (sometimes a particular teacher may just be a "bad fit" for a given student), and the huge variability in raw materials (student performance in a given class can depend very strongly on factors completely outside a teacher's control) and available resources.
All of this means that evaluating the performance of teachers is an extremely muddy business. Standardized tests don't necessarily work, student evaluations are dicey at best, parental feedback sometimes has a negative correlation with classroom performance, and so on.
There's a rough consensus, among people I've talked to at work, that the tenure review committees here do a reasonably good job of evaluating teaching. (Of course, many of them have tenure, so what else would they say?) Unfortunately, that process is incredibly cumbersome, involving classroom observation, interviews with a large number of randomly selected students, and several years worth of teaching evaluation numbers. This isn't a process you can go through on an annual basis, but anything short of that starts to be problematic.
This murkiness leaves thing open to abuse. If there's no simple way of evaluating teaching that is generally agreed to be effective, the process becomes very subjective. Just about anyone can be made to look like a bad teacher by careful application of one inadequate standard or another, which means that an unscrupulous principal could easily doctor up a way to make troublesome teachers look bad (some parental complaints here, some bad classroom evaluations there), and then fire them for "incompetence." The same problem holds with "merit pay" schemes: it's very difficult to determine "merit" in a way that everyone will agree on, leaving the system open to abuse.
That's (part of) why we have tenure. The system is set up to make it hard to fire someone for incompetence because it's hard to prove that they're incompetent in a way that everyone will agree on. If you delve into the requirements of the firing process for tenured faculty, you find things that look an awful lot like the tenure review evaluations here-- lots of classroom observations, student and parent interviews, years worth of evaluation numbers. That's the only way we've got to effectively assess teaching performance in a manner that's fair and generally accepted. It's not a matter of counting how many nails there are in a bucket at the end of the day-- it's a complicated and difficult process.
And, again, tenure is not a blessing that is magically conferred upon teachers the instant they sign the papers accepting their pitifully inadequate starting salary. It's awarded after an evaluation process that stretches over several years. If people get tenure, it means that the best available methods have shown them to be competent at what they do. And if incompetent people are being granted tenure, it means that somebody else in the chain wasn't doing their job.