Friday, April 18, 2014

A college "death spiral" could breathe new life into education

Small U.S. Colleges Battle Death Spiral as Enrollment Drops

“What we’re concerned about is the death spiral -- this continuing downward momentum for some institutions,” said Susan Fitzgerald, an analyst at Moody’s Investors Service in New York. “We will see more closures than in the past.”

Moody’s, which rates more than 500 public and private nonprofit colleges and universities, downgraded an average of 28 institutions annually in the five years through 2013, more than double the average of 12 in the prior five-year period.

Dozens of schools have seen drops of more than 10 percent in enrollment, according to Moody’s. As faculty and staff have been cut and programs closed, some students have faced a choice between transferring or finishing degrees that may have diminished value.

Such a death spiral* would be wel-diddly-come. No reason for kids to accrue farcical debt attaining unremunerative liberal arts degrees. The education bubble, which is even more sacrosanct and absurd than the "American dream of owning a home," continues to attract scrutiny, and it's about time. Predictably, all of the "solutions" being offered are written in 19-year-old girl speak.

We keep hearing we have do something about the cost of education, but never examine the factors behind the cost: government backstopping student loan debt* and the absurd level of demand created by bamboozling everyone to pursue college (regardless of whether they're qualified).

We keep hearing that we need to "close the skills gap," that we need to "educate our young folks to get those high-skill, high-paying jobs," but say nothing about whether an innate skills gap - in our age number crunching smarts engender far more opportunities than verbal smarts - can be bridged by throwing more money at the problem (spoiler alert: it can't). A kid who isn't wired to handle algebra isn't going to become an engineer no matter how many shiny iPads you bequeath to him. Speaking of money and education, America spends more on education than anyone, and well, you've see the results.

In the meantime, while pundits and hollow-eyed pig-men pat themselves on the back for offering useless and pandering prescriptions, we continue encouraging EVERYONE, qualified or not, to attend college and accumulate more debt they'll never repay. It's like Nero writing a syllabus as Rome University burns.

INCOME INEQUALITY TALK IS CURRENTLY ALL THE RAGE, and "closing the skills gap" through "education" comes up constantly when the matter is discussed. With apologies to those who were born yesterday: more "education" isn't going to solve "income inequality." We live in the era of the Long Tail; the winners are going to keep winning bigger and the losers are going to keep losing bigger. This skew is a byproduct of the very technology politicians/pundits are pretending every kid can learn to harness. Automation, which is being accelerated by those with number crunching skills, is leaving those without similar cognitive tools in an even deeper hole. And automation isn't the only radical change being catalyzed by technology; like I've written about before, a great education didn't shield American engineers from the outsourcing revolution. So much for a heady technology education being a turnkey answer to the jobs crisis.

Looking back on my teen years, one thing that stands out in my mind is the HUGE stigma that was attached to vocational school (called VoTech where I lived). When I was in middle and high school there were teachers who tried to scare us by saying if we didn't get it together we'd end up going to VoTech. At the time I joked about VoTech too. Now I look back and realize what a dope I was: what was so wrong with VoTech? Many kids would have been better off attending VoTech to become an employable electrician or auto body worker than trying to attend a college they didn't belong in. How many of them dabbled in community college and junior college (neither institution is free, by the way) for years before finally giving up without earning a degree? How many settled into waitressing jobs because their college difficulties made them think there was no hope? Meanwhile they might have been mechanically inclined and could have established solid careers as tradesmen.

And how many kids scraped by, barely managing to get a degree in something soft like sociology, and rang up all that debt to acquire a degree that at best set them up to be teachers? The line to become a full-time liberal arts teacher is much longer than the line to become a full-time electrician.

With all this talk of self-esteem, think of how much better the self-esteem of those kids would have been being surrounding by other VoTech students rather than struggling like mad in Algebra II and becoming convinced they were stupid and doomed.

Electricians and carpenters aren't being outsourced. Encouraging kids who can't do algebra to focus on college and Silicon Valley-type jobs is putting them on a kamikaze career path. They aren't going to Silicon Valley, but with the right encouragement they could fix Silicon Valley's toilets for a very respectable wage.

Education won't solve income inequality. Piling up student loan debt for useless degrees only furthers it.

*This very death spiral is going to leave even more verbal intellectuals (would-be humanities professors) out of work and out of luck.

*The government backstop of mortgage debt helped foster the housing bubble.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

The White/Black/Brown/Yellow Man's Burden

A man in a relationship wears many hats: security guard, handyman, accountant, psychiatrist, ATM. He receives no gratitude for doing all these jobs.

When he finally finds time to take a break from these roles, he watches television; where every commercial portrays him as a hopeless incompetent.* It's high time we asked the question: WHY ARE THERE NO STRONG MALE CHARACTERS IN COMMERCIALS?

You frequently hear the gripe that "Women in movies play the roles men want to see." In commercials, men play the roles women want to see.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A worse form of seasonal affect disorder

Yes, it has been a cold winter in America. Yes, we have seen some things we're not used to seeing. The worst part isn't the hypothermia and lost toes; it's the people from routinely frigid parts of the country trying to tell you this winter was no big deal.

Irreparably stupid former Minnesotan: You call this cold? This is how Minnesota is every single winter!

Nice to know Mr. Gunderlundersonsen, but the fact that you were colder in Minnesota ten years ago doesn't make me warmer in New York today.

Also, everyone from cold weather town claims everyone in warmer towns doesn't know how to drive in the snow.

Irreparably stupid former Minnesotan: The second there's an inch of snow here everyone panics and slows down!

Maybe you didn't hear yourself, Mr. Gunderlundersonsen, but you are exposing a hole in your own thesis: If New York winters are no big deal, then it makes perfect sense we wouldn't be accustomed to driving in the snow and would therefore drive more cautiously. You know, 'cause our Februarys are your Augusts. If I drive as quickly in the snow as you, I'll crash, won't I? Given my GALLING LACK OF EXPERIENCE WITH EIGHTEN FOOT BLIZZARDS, my attempting to drive in a snowstorm is like a Mormon trying to drive drunk. Or a woman in Saudi Arabia trying to drive, period.

And you can bet Mr. Gunderlunderson would tell those Saudi women drivers: "What's with all the women here driving slowly? Where I'm from, we have Danica Patrick!"

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Streetcar Named GET ME OUT OF HERE

I recently returned from three days in New Orleans. Contrary to popular belief about this mystical, artsy, energetic city, that may have been 2.75 days too many.

Some observations from the front lines:

Starting at hour 36 the allegedly romantic fog stops being mystical and starts being a fortress of vision-sabotaging pneumonia pellets.

New Orleans feels less like a city and more like a really involved flea market for ulcerous faux-voodoo and faux-jazz. As you walk from Chotsky Hut to Chotsky Hut, the ten worst songs of the '80s seem to be playing on a loop (did Def Leppard just come out there?).

On Bourbon Street you seek cute, young women baring it all for beads. What you actually see are blackout drunk eyesores screaming to be heard over other blackout drunk eyesores. After five minutes you start looking for ways to turn those beads into tongue clamps.

The streetcar moves so slowly you sometimes get off and find yourself in the 18th Century. Other times you sit helpless as you get passed by a snail...crawling backward...while wearing ankle weights.

The much discussed "energy of the city" does not prevent tourists from stopping in the middle of the sidewalk. The local drivers are quite courteous, so it wouldn't exactly be lethal for these map-bearing cinderblocks to take half a step off the sidewalk to consult their guide. Hey tourists, if you want to find the French Quarter just follow the vomit. Think of it as a North Star you can step in.

I only noticed the balconies because I was looking for one high enough to throw myself from.

But fear not, I have already booked my return flight (I mean c'mon, it's New Orleans).

P.S. witches: if voodoo worked, the government would outlaw it and keep it for its own arsenal.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Identity Realpolitiks

Although the elites remain willfully/and or naively blind to the facts, the events in Ukraine are a reminder that paperwork alone doesn't make a people. Identity politics still exist. Perhaps they're even more notable in the Age of Globalism, and not just in "non-Western" countries like Russia and Ukraine.

Cuba is still an issue in swing state Florida. It isn't such a big issue in North Dakota.

A consistent source of funding for the IRA came from...Boston, from people several centuries removed from Oliver Cromwell.

Hey, speaking of identity politics, a factor behind Ukraine's fracture was a large population of Ukraine-residing Russians. A stroke of a pen didn't seem to make them forget this.

As the world becomes ever more globalized, my suspicion is we'll see new and ever more interesting identity flare-ups. The US, with its 140+ country empire and eclectic population might want to ponder this before it does any more military busybodying (did I mention Oliver Cromwell?).

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Why most book reviewers are even dumber than sports radio callers

When hack reviewers aren't minimizing "genre" fiction (and genre film, for that matter), as "page-turners" or "popular fiction," they are reducing its contents to snarky captions; especially when a "literary" reviewer stoops to review it. A typical (and typically grating) example comes to us from professional hater Michiko Kakutani. Her review in the New York Times (the paper of record, if by record you mean as obsolete as vinyl) of Scott Smith's horror novel The Ruins carries this precious title: "A Mexican Vacation, Interrupted by Killer Plants".

I'm sure Ms. Kakutani was very proud of herself for tweeing off on Mr. Smith's work (strange she doesn’t apply her sublime talent to creating a stack of her own novels). I wonder if she and the rest of the sneering mannequin community realize you can mock classic fiction in exactly the same way:

Hamlet: Family Feud involving ghosts and Scandinavians.

Moby-Dick: Sailor who doesn't suffer fools gladly chases large whale.

Pride and Prejudice: Upper class chick hates bad boy before liking him.

Everything in fiction sounds silly if you nanosize it. Metaphors and allegories become full blown laugh riots if you cut them to the bone. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (which helped him win the Nobel) becomes a tale of a big one that got away; one so big it is Christ-like.

If your friend told you his nightcrawlers helped him catch a dead savior, chances are you’d be choking on laughter rather than tears. But in the context of Hemingway’s novel, this normally tedious imagery becomes extremely powerful.

This is why I (and the rest of mankind) give every Kakutani review the same headline: "Hack reviewer writes hack reviews valued only by other hack reviewers."

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Micro Horror from a Micro Person

You already know I'm a comedic blowhard. You may not know I'm also a fiction writing blowhard. I have a flash fiction (about 200 words) horror story up on