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[ 32 ] July 21, 2013 |

Because we all need to see Connie Stevens chase William Smith through the streets of Seattle in 1976 for 6 minutes on a dune buggy.

Helen Thomas, RIP

[ 52 ] July 20, 2013 |

Despite some unfortunate late life expressions, Helen Thomas was a pretty amazing woman.

Demythologizing Hookup Culture

[ 59 ] July 20, 2013 |

While the New York Times, Tom Wolfe, and lots of other people fret about our young college women having too much sex that doesn’t lead to procreation, Lisa Wade gets into the research on hookup culture to ground it in reality. A few points:

1. It’s massively overrated, including by students themselves:

First, 91 percent of college students agree that their lives are dominated by the hookup culture. Second, the median number of hookups for a graduating senior is seven. That’s fewer than two hookups a year. Only about 40 percent of those hookups include sexual intercourse so, technically, the typical student acquires only two new sexual partners during college.

2. Hookup culture is dominated by wealthy white people. African-Americans and working-class students engage far less:

African-American students are less likely to hook up than white students. Sociological studies suggest that lingering racism plays a part: Black people have been traditionally stereotyped as hypersexual (trigger warning: see the “jezebel” and “mandingo” stereotypes). So, for black men and women, embracing sexual freedom can bring individual rewards, but also risks affirming harmful beliefs about African-Americans. In response, some black people feel the need to perform a politics of respectability. Rashawn Ray and Jason Rosow, for example, in a comparison of black and white fraternities, found that black men’s resistance to negative racial stereotypes sometimes involved being “good” and following mainstream social norms of appearance and behavior.


In contrast, poor and working-class students, who are often the first ones in their families to attend college, tend to take it much more seriously and don’t take for granted that they’ll finish, so they party less. They also bring their values with them, so they imagine starting a family earlier. Investing in a serious boyfriend or girlfriend is more in line with these goals. As one working-class student said, in a separate study by Hamilton, about her wealthier peers:

“Some of these girls don’t even go to class. It’s like they just live here. They stay up until 4:00 in the morning. [I want to ask,] ‘Do you guys go to class? Like what’s your deal? … You’re paying a lot of money for this … If you want to be here, then why aren’t you trying harder?’

In conclusion:

So what we are seeing on college campuses is the same dynamic we see outside of colleges. People with privilege—based on race, class, ability, attractiveness, sexual orientation, and, yes, gender—get to set the terms for everyone else. Their ideologies dominate our discourses, their particular set of values gets to appear universal, and everyone is subject to their behavioral norms. Students feel that a hookup culture dominates their colleges not because it is actually widely embraced, but because the people with the most power to shape campus culture like it that way.

Thus I guess we’ll see a ton more stories in the Times since these are the people who will later be featured in the paper’s wedding announcement section.

Thai Bin Two

[ 8 ] July 20, 2013 |

The US Export-Import Bank has decided not to fund the Thai Binh Two coal-fired power plant in Vietnam. This is a marginally good sign that the Obama Administration’s rejection of coal that he set out in his climate change speech will have real life benefits. However, it’s also a decision that comes at almost no political cost except irritating the Vietnamese government. What happens with the Keystone XL Pipeline and especially the exporting of Powder River Basin coal to Asia will be far more telling.

That Bright Shiny MOOC Future

[ 72 ] July 20, 2013 |

MOOCs totally provide an educational experience equal to or better than traditional college classrooms:

In January, San Jose State University made a big announcement: It had reached a deal with the startup Udacity to offer college classes for credit online, for a modest fee, not only to its own students but to anyone who wanted to take them. The move was touted as a major step in online learning’s Clay Christensen-approved march toward the ultimate disruption of higher education.

It seems, however, that there are a few more kinks to work out before we all toss out the books and the buildings for good. Inside Higher Ed reported on Thursday that San Jose State is suspending the Udacity partnership just six months after it launched. The problem: More than half the students in the first batch of online courses failed their final exams.

Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun, a machine-learning legend at Stanford and Google, told the AP that the failure rates in the five classes ranged from 56 to 76 percent. Nor was the course material exactly rocket science—the five classes were in elementary statistics, college algebra, entry-level math, introduction to programming, and introduction to psychology.

Thrun did note that 83 percent of students had completed the classes, a far higher rate than is typical for the free, open courses that have come to be known as MOOCs. Why so many failed is not fully clear, though the AP cites “officials” saying that a lot of the students who signed up had little college experience or were working full-time while taking the classes.

On the bright side, Thrun said Udacity had gained some valuable data from the experience. “We are experimenting and learning,” he said. “That to me is a positive.”

It’s always important to experiment and learn when students’ grades are at stake.

One of the arguments we frequently see in these MOOC discussions is that people hated their big survey courses so this would be better. Well, maybe you could screw around on Facebook during while your MOOC for Psychology 101 so it’s less boring, but 56-76% of students aren’t failing those courses when they see faculty in person. My History 141 failure rate is around 5-8%. This is a class of 125 students and the failures consist entirely of students who either stop coming to class or don’t turn in papers.

This is a pretty powerful piece of evidence suggesting the vast inferiority of MOOCs for students.

Student Debt Deal

[ 40 ] July 20, 2013 |

As you may have heard, 8 Senators have come to an agreement on student loan rates that is blessed by the White House. On July 1, thanks to our dysfunctional (nonfunctional?) political system, the interest rates for student borrowers jumped to an absurd 6.8%. The White House immediately pressed for a system that would tie student loan interest rates to what the government pays to borrow money. As with much of his education agenda, this was a terrible idea from the Obama Administration and basically ceded ground to the Republicans. Senate Democrats were angry and initially rejected such an idea, but what could they really do in the end? The typical college undergraduate borrowing $27,000 (which is an insane amount of money right there) will pay an extra $300 in interest under this system.

Some Democrats such as Diana Carew at the Progressive Policy Institute are calling this a “reasonable compromise.”
I don’t really see it that way. Carew is right that relatively small changes in interest rates is not the biggest driver of student debt. Yet the interest rate on student loans should be 0.0%. That should be the progressive policy position. Republicans and some Democrats have talked of the extra revenue raised by the rise in student loan rates. The government should receive absolutely no profit from the student loan system.

This is one of those small victories for Republicans that add up to make our lives worse and worse, one day at a time.


[ 46 ] July 19, 2013 |


Nate Silver, the statistician who attained national fame for his accurate projections about the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, is parting ways with The New York Times and moving his FiveThirtyEight franchise to ESPN, the sports empire controlled by the Walt Disney Company, according to ESPN employees with direct knowledge of his plans.

At ESPN, Mr. Silver is expected to have a wide-ranging portfolio. Along with his writing and number-crunching, he will most likely be a regular contributor to “Olbermann,” the late-night ESPN2 talk show hosted by Keith Olbermann that will have its debut at the end of August. In political years, he will also have a role at ABC News, which is owned by Disney.

I suppose there are plenty of statistically minded people now to take Silver’s place at the Times if they want someone. I’m more curious as to the extent that he will still write about politics versus sports.

Also, will Politico now boycott ESPN for hiring its nemesis?

….Someone on a listserv I’m on expressed a desire to see Silver join Skip Bayless on First Take. I think we all want to see what would happen.

The Disappearing Middle Class

[ 41 ] July 19, 2013 |

No politician wants to talk about this and most Americans don’t want to admit it, but the middle class is rapidly disappearing in this country, with contingent, part-time, and freelancing employment replacing the stable jobs with solid incomes that made up the middle class in the second half of the twentieth century. With almost every piece of economic news, this becomes ever more clear.

An improving housing market and rising stock prices appear to have done little to increase the take-home pay of the typical U.S. worker. And while the economy continues to heal faster than that of almost any other Western nation, evidence remains strong that the recovery has done little to boost the fortunes of people in the vast economic middle.

The Labor Department reported this month that average earnings have barely grown faster than inflation over the past year. Data from spring show that median earnings — those of the worker smack in the middle of the middle class — have fallen 4 percent since the recession ended, after adjusting for inflation.

Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco reported this week that wage growth across the economy is continuing to slow in the wake of the recession, in a way similar to the past two recessions but counter to previous recoveries in the 20th century. The researchers warned that wage growth is likely to decelerate “long after the unemployment rate has returned to more normal levels.”

Again, the fundamentals of the middle-class are disappearing: the ability to buy a home, an inexpensive college education, stable employment, steady wage growth. The stock market and home prices for the rich can rise and rise and lead to people talking about an economic recovery, but the quality of life for average Americans continues to decline.

The Origins of Stand Your Ground

[ 50 ] July 19, 2013 |

Adam Gopnik with an excellent essay on how Stand Your Ground is basically the American doctrine of maximum violence in a new era:

In France and England, though, duelling was meant to reinstate an aristocratic code of honor against the encroachment of the middle class. (This is dramatized in the strange and wonderful Ridley Scott film “The Duellists.”) But in the ideal European duel it was likely that both parties would survive. In America, around the same time, the code of honor took a very different form. American duels were dangerous, usually fought to the death, and left in their wake that special American thing, the feud. Instead of dissolving personal quarrels in a solvent of honor, the American way of duelling enhanced them. In 1808, for instance, two men fought a duel in Maryland—with rifles, and at thirty steps. During the Jackson Administration, when General Armistead Thomson Mason challenged Colonel John Mason McCarty, McCarty, it’s said, “would only consent to meet him on such terms as would result in the certain destruction of one, or both.” (McCarty had suggested that they fight with pistols at point-blank range on top of a keg of gunpowder.) In Europe, the honor of the duellist was a concept that ennobled and abstracted violence. In America, it was a concept that empowered and invigorated it.

This violent practice was fuelled by a principle of common law, traced brilliantly by the historian Richard Brown, in his book “No Duty to Retreat.” In English common law, there was an old concept of that, if you were engaged in conflict and killed someone, to prove self-defense you had to demonstrate that your back was—in most cases, literally—up against the wall. You had a “duty to retreat.” In America, the new concept was that you had no duty to retreat—indeed, you had an obligation not to retreat. You were more or less required to blast away at anyone who approached you with, as you saw it, ill will. You didn’t have to show that you had tried your best to escape the confrontation. In 1856, Texas law, Brown writes, gave private citizens “wide discretionary powers to kill their fellow citizens legally and with impunity.”

This violence-encouraging doctrine has persisted, and so, too, has the reasoning of the judicial decisions that established it. There is no invocation of natural law. The argument isn’t that all men have an inherent right to kill when threatened. It appeals instead to a kind of implicit cultural law: it is not in the American character to retreat. Beneath the surface of the liberal state and the legal rules designed to limit violence and grant a monopoly of its use to a freely elected government, there is a national character that has to be protected—or, perhaps, has to be invented. Appealing to that shadow nation impels the romance of violence in American life, and gives it practical and legal sanction as well. The legal liberal America is treated as a flimsy effigy, without the spirit to do the things that true Americans do—above all, act out violently with guns. And that identity is regarded as more worthy of protection than their citizenship.

Brown directed my undergraduate honors thesis and I’ll attest to the brilliance of his work on the origins of American violence. The connections between white men and violence run to the heart of national identity and anyone who takes that on receives maximum pushback, as I know too well. Gopnik doesn’t get too deep into the racial component of this violence, but while white men had every right to shoot each other in the street, their right to shoot people of color went almost without saying, helping explaining the everyday racial violence of American history.

Look at What Bipartisanship Can Accomplish

[ 88 ] July 19, 2013 |

I guess Lanny Davis’ dream of bipartisanship taking place over completely meaningless cultural items has come true in Pennsylvania:

Today, U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) released the following statement in response to news that the American Mustache Institute has decided to relocate from St. Louis, Missouri to Pittsburgh.

“The American Mustache Institute’s decision confirmed what we already knew- that Pittsburgh is not only one of the country’s most livable cities but one of the most stylish,” Senator Casey said. “From the Handlebar to the Horseshoe, Pittsburghers can do it all. With football season around the corner, this announcement will up the pressure on the Steelers’ Brett Keisel to grow something truly extraordinary this year.”

“Pittsburgh was and continues to be home to many of our Nation’s greatest mustachioed men,” said Senator Toomey. “Whether it be former Super Bowl winning Coach Bill Cowher or current all-star closer Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh has certainly seen its fair share of individuals that succeed due to hard work, ability and intimidating facial hair. With this in mind, it only seems fitting that Pittsburgh be the home of the American Mustache Institute.”

What can’t we accomplish if our senators avoid pointless issues like economic disparity and reproductive rights and instead focus on the truly meaningful things that can bring us all together, like Rollie Fingers’ facial hair.

Fort Wagner

[ 73 ] July 18, 2013 |

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the assault on Fort Wagner, when the African-American 54th Massachusetts so bravely tried to take the fort guarding Charleston Harbor.

Now That’s Higher Education!

[ 55 ] July 18, 2013 |

In all the hubbub about the ridiculous salary CUNY wanted to pay David Petraeus to teach, we never thought to ask what kind of teacher he would be. The answer–he’s using his position to channel corporate-funded research about fracking to students.

According to the syllabus, Petraeus will devote two weeks to energy alone, naming those weeks “The Energy Revolution I” and “The Energy Revolution II.” The two “frackademia” studies Petraeus will have his students read for his course titled “The Coming North American Decade(s)? are both seminal industry-funded works.

One of them is a study written by industry-funded National Economic Research Associates (NERA) concluding liquified natural gas (LNG) exports are beneficial to the U.S. economy, despite the fact that exporting fracked gas will raise domestic home-heating and manufacturing prices. NERA was founded by “father of deregulation” Alfred E. Kahn. The study Petraeus will have his students read was contracted out by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to NERA.

The other, a study written by then-Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) research professor Ernest Moniz – now the head of the DOE – is titled “The Future of Natural Gas” and also covers LNG exports. DOE oversees the permitting process for LNG exports. That study was funded by the Clean Skies Foundation, a front group for Chesapeake Energy and covered in-depth in the Public Accountability Initiative’s report titled, “Industry Partner or Industry Puppet?”

Noticeably absent from the reading list: studies tackling the climate impacts, air quality impacts, over-arching ecological impacts such as water contamination, wastewater impacts and supply issues (aka diminishing supply).

Together, the two crucial studies on the syllabus reading list – and the lack of critical readings on the topic of fracking – offers a gimpse into the stamp of legitimacy industry-funded studies get when they have the logo of elite research universities on them. It’s also another portrayal of the ascendancy of the corporate university.

For this kind of deep critical study, I don’t see how one could argue with a $200,000 salary!