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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Writing off the Freedom Writers

A bitter op-ed in the NY Times earlier this month argues against hagiographic films like Freedom Writers that glorify teachers. Tom Moore, a 10th grade teacher in the Bronx, points out that it will take more than the earnestness and consuming dedication of a few young teachers to fix our education system.
...the most dangerous message such films promote is that what schools really need are heroes. This is the Myth of the Great Teacher.

Films like “Freedom Writers” portray teachers more as missionaries than professionals, eager to give up their lives and comfort for the benefit of others, without need of compensation. Ms. Gruwell sacrifices money, time and even her marriage for her job.

Her behavior is not represented as obsessive or self-destructive, but driven — necessary, even. She is forced into making these sacrifices by the aggressive neglect of the school’s administrators, who won’t even let her take books from the bookroom. The film applauds Ms. Gruwell’s dedication, but also implies that she has no other choice. In order to be a good teacher, she has to be a hero.

“Freedom Writers,” like all teacher movies this side of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” is presented as a celebration of teaching, but its message is that poor students need only love, idealism and martyrdom.
Every year young people enter the teaching profession hoping to emulate the teachers they’ve seen in films. (Maybe in the back of my mind I felt that I could be an inspiring teacher like Howard Hesseman or Gabe Kaplan.) But when you’re confronted with the reality of teaching not just one class of misunderstood teenagers (the common television and movie conceit) but four or five every day, and dealing with parents, administrators, mentors, grades, attendance records, standardized tests and individual education plans for children with learning disabilities, not to mention multiple daily lesson plans — all without being able to count on the support of your superiors — it becomes harder to measure up to the heroic movie teacher you thought you might be.

It’s no surprise that half the teachers in poor urban schools, like Erin Gruwell herself, quit within five years. (Ms. Gruwell now heads a foundation.)
Several teachers wrote in to the Times to share their experiences and, for the most part, to echo Moore's indignation.

For my part, I worked for three years at an afterschool program teaching public high school students in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and I know I want to teach in the future. But there is little incentive to do so besides my own desire to instruct and know young people. Studies suggest that just paying teachers more doesn't do much to improve student performance, but I wonder if they just haven't considered how schools might change if the teaching profession could attract the kind of top-end talent that the legal and medical professions do. I had several extraordinary teachers in high school, and even in our high-paying school district, public school was a difficult place for brilliant people to work.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Isak Dinesen++

A great Isak Dinesen passage, found, of all places, in the C++ programming language textbook I must devour for work:
"...and you, Marcus, you have given me many things; now I shall give you this good advice. Be many people. Give up the game of being always Marcus Cocoza. You have worried too much about Marcus Cocoza, so that you have been really his slave and prisoner. You have not done anything without first considering how it would affect Marcus Cocoza's happiness and prestige. You were always much afraid that Marcus might do a stupid thing, or be bored. What would it really have mattered? All over the world people are doing stupid things..! I should like you to be easy, your heart to be light again. You must, from now, be more than one, be many people, as many as you can think of..."
-Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), "The Dreamers"
I feel a sparkling joy when I read old lit--whether it's ancient or just half a century old, like this passage--and recognize the timeless world of human drama as my own.

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Blogger Alice on Sun Jan 28, 05:00:00 PM:
But why was the passage in the C++ textbook?
Blogger Ben on Tue Feb 06, 12:02:00 AM:
I don't know. But now that you ask, I have a theory. The author, Bjarne Stroustrup, creator of C++, is acknowledging that his language is not of a piece, but is rather a notorious mishmash of incongruous programming language elements. He is indirectly addressing C, the predecessor of C++: You have worried too much about being C. You have been C's slave. You must, from now, be many languages, as many as your contributors can think of...

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Just when you thought Alice doesn't live here anymore

I liked The Departed more than Ben did, so I'm pleased that Martin Scorsese got an Academy Award nomination for Best Director. It's not my favorite of his movies, but I had a completely fun time suspending disbelief for it. I wouldn't have believed anyone who told me ten years ago that I'd be amazed by a Matt Damon performance, but I've been consistently impressed by his "hollow man" roles in The Departed, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and the Bourne series. Who knew to expect that from Will Hunting? I loved Scorsese's acceptance speech at the Golden Globes and thought of Mark Singer's amazing profile of the director in the New Yorker several years ago. The profile is reprinted in Singer's Character Studies: Encounters with the Curiously Obsessed. I'd be skeptical of this paragraph for the mannered rhetorical questions were they describing almost anyone other than Scorsese, but Singer does a great job of showing how much information is packed into just one Scorsese sentence. Singer lets the quotations run on for lines to show how Scorsese moves from one association to the next, and surely the associations probably wouldn't end if there weren't another question on the table. The profile, which was written in 2000, is about Scorsese's work on Bringing Out the Dead and his plans for Gangs of New York, neither of which I loved, but I do love hearing him talk about the movies. Here's Singer on the Scorsese interview experience:

Across many months, I had many conversations with Scorsese, encounters that tended to engender a mixture of awe and sympathy. Along the way, I would speculate about the agreeably garrulous fellow: What's the weather like inside his brain? Evidently, every movie he'd ever watched--and he'd probably seen more than any other living director, more than most movie critics--was stored there, along with five-plus decades of personal history, sensory memory, family mythology, music heard, books read, all of it seemingly instantly retrievable. Was it painful, I wondered, to remember so much? Scorsese's powers of recall weren't limited to summoning plot turns or notable scenes or acting performances; his gray matter bulged with camera angles, lighting strategies, scores, sound effects, ambient noises, editing rhythms, production credits, data about lenses and film stocks and exposure speeds and aspect ratios. Instinctively, he'd engraved facts and images and feelings that he'd been able to draw upon throughout his creative life. But what about all the sludge--wasn't that a burden, or was it just part of the price one paid to make great art?

The other profiles in the book are fantastic. When I looked through the collection, I wasn't surprised that I remembered reading most of the profiles when they were first published, even if I hadn't remembered the author. The Ricky Jay profile, in particular, has stuck with me since I read it years ago. I love the part about piercing the watermelon with playing cards. The necessary companion to Character Studies is Lawrence Wechsler's A Wanderer in the Perfect City. Wechsler's profile subjects aren't as famous as Scorsese, Jay, or Donald Trump, but they're just as (if not more) curiously obsessed and eager to talk about their enthusiasms.

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Blogger Ben on Tue Jan 23, 09:07:00 PM:
I finally saw The Last Waltz, and of course it's shot brilliantly, but I was surprised how bad it was. Mostly, that's because, as I found out, I just don't like The Band. But Scorsese's interview interludes were bland and pointless. It compared poorly to the documentary Festival Express, also featuring the band.

The Joni Mitchell and Neil Young songs were a big exception. A year ago, Alice wrote about watching their duet over and over.
Anonymous Anonymous on Fri Jan 26, 12:30:00 AM:
I love Scorsese and I loved The Departed. In my case, I was amazed that I could be blown away by a Di Caprio performance. Yes, as usual, I am a late comer to a world wide consensus. Have you ever wondered what *The Godfather* would have been like if Scorsese had directed it? I hadn't until just now.
(Please go see *Pan's Labyrinth.* Food for the generically obsessed. And tell us what you think.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Peyton Manning's Jennifer Hudson moment

The Patriots' loss to the Colts last night was tough to take, but the blow is softened by Selena Roberts's hilarious column in the NY Times today (don't bother trying to read the whole article, it's Times Selected):
[Indianapolis quarterback Peyton] Manning was solo at the end of a virtuoso performance. Call it a version of "Dreamboys" instead of "Dreamgirls", with the way Manning finally overcame his Jennifer Hudson moment as the drama of the American Football Conference title game unfolded last night in the RCA Dome.

Manning had always been the N.F.L. quarterback with the best pipes, the greatest arm and most talent. And yet Brady had forever emerged as his Beyonce, the beautiful one, always out front. Brady is the dimple-chinned Patriots quarterback, a perpetual prom king with a supermodel on his arm and three Super Bowl rings on his fingers.

Peyton has never been as cool or charmed, never the star on stage when everyone is watching and everything counts... To fulfill his thespian side, Manning craved an opportunity to look into the face masks of the Patriots at the end of the game and say, You complete me, as he finally skipped off to Miami for Super Bowl XLI.

It was nemesis interruptus for Manning... In bare feet last night, he stepped from Brady's aura and into his own as a playoff virtuoso.
With the comic brilliance Manning has shown in his commercials this season, he should join Jake Gyllenhaal for a duet.

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Blogger TinyTornado on Mon Jan 22, 07:46:00 PM:
I didn't think I could enjoy your blog any more than I do...then you had to go holler for Peyton. This had made my day :-)
Blogger Ben on Tue Jan 23, 08:21:00 PM:
I'm a Pats fan, but I admit Peyton's the real thing. I'd much rather we go down swinging against the Colts than fizzle against Jake Plummer.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Tribute to Art Buchwald

On David Kaiser's History Unfolding blog, a moving tribute to Art Buchwald:
Vietnam was not the only foreign adventure for which Buchwald skewered LBJ. Rereading a series from the first half of 1965, when the President was literally on top of the world, I was amazed at how acutely Buchwald had sized him up and identified his fatal flaws. The President's secretiveness, sensitivity to criticism, and treatment of his staff were the target of withering columns. When Marines went into the Dominican Republic, Buchwald on May 23 summarized the history of a Latin American country, "La Enchilada:" the assassination of strongman General El Finco a few years ago, his eventual replacement by a reformer, Don Juan IInnhel, followed in 1963 by Don Juan's overthrow by a junta of generals, "much, of course, to our surprise."
The war was still going strong in August 1967, and so was Buchwald. One morning he fantasized about how the story of the Edsel--a car Ford released under Robert McNamara--might have gone differently. Catching the ethos of his contemporaries perfectly, he told how Ford executives might have refused to drop the car, instead deciding to build more and bigger Edsels until, by the end of the column, they were ready to drop all their other cars to make it a success. It wasn't necessary to use the word "Vietnam" by that time.
A little more than a year ago I watched the film Good Night and Good Luck in Harvard Square. As I left the theater with my eyes full of tears, I saw an elderly couple still in their seats, looking similarly moved. "They were giants in those days," I said, and they nodded.

Buchwald, in his way, was one of them.
See Buchwald's books on Amazon, including the memoir of his five months in a hospice during his last year of life.


Saturday, January 20, 2007

Larry Summers has left the building

You know you're really over at Harvard when Bartley's Burger Cottage takes your burger namesake off the menu. The Larry Summers burger is gone, but you can still get a Bill Clinton (bacon, chedder, and mushrooms), a Deval Patrick, a Skip Gates or a Barack Obama (accompanied by the phrase "no experience necessary"). My favorite burger at Bartley's and favorite sandwich at Columbia University's Hamilton Deli are, incidentally, both called the Bill Clinton.


Anonymous Anonymous on Mon Jan 22, 09:31:00 AM:
I think they also got rid of the John Kerry.

The rancor of the near-miss

Adam Gopnik on football, Jan 8 New Yorker:
Partly what drains the joy from the inner game of pro football these days is the same as what drains the joy from much of American life: there's a lot of money to be made by a few people, and a lot less for everybody else... The unhappiness that you feel among the players in [several recent books] is hardly the misery of the oppressed, but it is something more familiar these days, the rancor of the near-miss. Why them and not us? is a radical question. Why the guy at the next locker and not me? a bitter one.


Friday, January 19, 2007

What I'd pay for a mind free from DC subway minutia

I recently went to Washington DC, and as always, was frustrated by the subway system's complicated payment scheme, where travel between different zones costs different amounts, and you must use your transit card on both entry and exit from the system. Hope you don't change your mind en route!

This kind of system earned me a $30 euro fine (that I managed to talk my way out of by playing the bewildered tourist) in Frankfurt, Germany a few years ago. The train I was on was running skip-stop, and skipped a connecting station, so I had to get out and get on a train going back to make my connection. The transit police who found me (and spoke good English) were unsympathetic to my suggestion that riders agree to travel from specific source to destination stations, but never swear to take only the most efficient route.

The New York City MTA subway has plenty of cryptic information about train routes and schedules, but little overall instruction for payment besides handwritten "Subway costs $2" signs. The other options--discounts for Metrocards above $10, unlimited passes for periods of a day, a week, or a month--all operate simply and automatically. For example, you do not need to provide a starting date for the unlimited cards. The only unpredictable behavior of MetroCards is that if you use one to swipe several people, and then transfer to the bus, you must only swipe the card once; the absent-minded who swipe again find themselves $1.67 poorer.

But a visitor to New York needs only to walk up to a $100,000 MetroCard machine (the city signed a very bad contract), decide between unlimited and regular cards, and decide how much they want to buy. One swipe and they're in the system, and free to go where they wish.

The DC subway, on the other hand, requires visitors to study the map, figure out that they must look up their destination station on a grid, and find the proper column for the current time and type of ride. Then they must decipher the ticket machine's cryptic interface of buttons and switches, and press these repeatedly until the proper price is shown. If they wish to save time by buying several rides at once, they had better know their future travel plans perfectly, because traveling between different stations will cost different amounts.

There are at most a few sentences of general instructions you are asked to read to buy a MetroCard for the first time. On the DC subway, ticket machines have 483 words of instructions, plus a grid listing 88 stations that contains 442 pieces of information (such as a station name, price, and time).

This level of detail allows the DC subway to scale prices to the distance, and therefore value, of the ride. New York's does not do this, which means Greenwich Villagers who hop on to go to Canal Street are paying too much and Forest Hills residents who commute to midtown are paying too little. But there is overall cost savings of simplicity in peoples' lives, lower costs of enforcement, and improved time savings because riders can exit New York's small, often crowded stations quickly.

This is a very small example of the cost of a system with too many rules that demands too much attention from its users. Even with the subway, which everyone quickly learns to deal with regardless of its quirks, a simpler system is a less intrusive system that saves countless hours of peoples' lives. (New York, for its part, would do well to change the way it deals with service interruptions, which even if unavoidable do not need to cause so much confusion and unintended backtracking.)

The value of simple rules is something that Republican reformers understand, expecially regarding complex tax laws and burdensome approval procedures. But because so many deregulators wish to tear down rules that protect workers, consumers and the environment, Democrats generally view government rules as beneficial, and their reduction as craven. We must realize that this isn't always so.

For example, income taxes are ridiculously complicated for even low-income earners, especially the self-employed. I spent over twenty hours doing my taxes this year, though I earned less than $25,000; I could have paid a few hundred dollars for a cheap accountant, but don't trust them to properly account for unusual details like deducting the rent of my separate home office.

A flat tax would be regressive, certainly, but why not introduce a flat tax for those who earn less than $40,000 per year, and eliminate income taxes for those earning less than $20,000? True, this would punish business owners, families with lots of kids, the very sick, and those who give to charity, but it would save everyone time and if the savings from reduced auditing work and improved compliance were spent on keeping the flat rate low, could save most people money.

The country of Georgia, whose president I worked for in 2005-6, has reduced by 81% the number of licenses required of businesses and professionals. It has also introduced a flat tax (per Estonia's example), and has passed a law that converts license application receipts into valid licenses after 60 days if the government fails to grant or reject the license by that time. There are many offices and rules that have not been so transformed, but some members of the young ruling party really want to make citizenship and business in Georgia less encumbered by bureaucracy--not for the benefit of profiteers (though they seem to be doing fine), but for the increased convenience of everybody.

That's a spirit hard to find in American government. Even Eliot Spitzer doesn't mind nonsensical laws that do no one any good, and he is the closest thing to this type of reformer we have in New York since Mark Green lost the Attorney General primary to Andrew Cuomo (who wouldn't know a bad law if it bit him in the Farkas). Michael Bloomberg seems to care, judging from the success of nonpartisan ideas like his 311 phone number, which has allowed me to get a good dozen potholes filled, always within two days of calling.

I criticized Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice, but he's right that there is a perniciousness to modern life's complexity, and that reducing it sensibly is not a partisan issue. But voters understand and appreciate the concepts of lower taxes and smaller government, and this has served Republicans well; perhaps Democrats could seize the unclaimed ground of simpler government?

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Anonymous Anonymous on Mon Jan 22, 09:31:00 AM:
Did you know that they got rid of "fare irregularities" on the T as of January 1? No more exit fares on the Braintree branch of the Red Line, but no more free outbound rides on the Green Line, either. They also got rid of tokens and, as far as I can tell, those little boxes next to the token booth where you could dump exact change. What's the catch? All rides cost the same now, but no one can figure out exactly what that cost is since it varies according to the type of fare card you are using. Eliminate one kind of confusion and add another--the MBTA in action!
Blogger Meg Lyman on Tue Mar 20, 09:44:00 PM:
You think self-employed taxes are complicated? Try self-employed and clergy!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Nemo Gould's scrap-heap robots

Artist Nemo Gould makes kinetic sculptures from scrap metal and other found objects. A few of my favorites from his portfolio are below. On his site he has videos of most sculptures in action.



Giant Squid

Ocean Scene

Solution for Violin

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Anonymous Anonymous on Mon Aug 11, 05:54:00 PM:
wow. I designed a snowglobe just like the one on top for the Disney store last year. It will be available this fall.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Satanism, imps, Dreamgirls

Embarrassing personal revelation: at one point in my life I knew every lyric to the musical Gypsy. I think/hope I've forgotten them. More to the point, no one should try to test me. (The reason is this: I did some theater when I was much younger and was always cast in the domineering woman role--witches, royalty and sub-royalty, overbearing mothers--because I was so much taller than everyone else and I had a big voice. I had some dream of playing Mama Rose, even though I think she's usually played by a sparkplug actress rather than a giantess and I have a truly terrible singing voice.)

Youthful follies aside, I'm not much for musicals. I was thus faced with a big personal challenge re: Dreamgirls. I love Motown music, particularly the girl groups, with a real passion. My three favorite songs ever are "Tracks of My Tears" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, "Rescue Me" by Martha and the Vandellas, and "I Want You Back" by the Jackson 5. I'm fascinated by Diana Ross's sweet but remote vocal style--so different from Martha Reeves' exuberance--because she's an extraordinary performer who can make that coolness sound compelling. Ben's favorite film reviewer (see here, here, here, and especially here) calls Diana Ross a "glamorous imp" in his review. I'll let that catalogue of Ben's annoyance stand for my suspicion of that adjective paired with that noun and that noun used to describe Diana Ross. Oh, and while I'm at it, Uli's Diana Ross dress on Project Runway was one of my top five looks of last season.

So I love Motown but I hate musicals--particularly the songs in the musicals, which a) are obviously the most important component, and b) usually have to do too much work in the story because they're the most important component. They have to tell a story in rhyme, promote character development, promote plot development, make obvious an Important Moment in the plot, and be entertaining. I think that's way too much to ask of a pop song (the last task on that list is hard enough!), which is why the idea of making a musical about pop music using pastiches of the originals underwhelms me.

Anyway, my mom and I went to see Dreamgirls the day after it came out in ABQ. We were having a pretty good time until this line: "You are so horribly satanic, / The way you lead me around / I feel just like the Titanic..." I don't think the success or failure of the movie hinges on that line, of course, but it's a good example of how the lyrics from Dreamgirls are so leaden compared to the songs they're honoring/approximating. That line is supposed to sound clever, foreshadow the business and love relationship problems later in the movie, show off Effie's showstopping lead vocals as the original lead singer of the Dreamettes (she steps out of the trio for that line, and she sounds great delivering a dumb line), and remind the film's audience of real Motown performances. "Satanic" doesn't belong in a 1960s Motown song, though. The line is too weird, and it's a reminder that the songs are fourth-rate imitations rather than the real thing. There may be odd similies in some of the Holland-Dozier-Holland catalogue, but they don't have the weight of an entire storyline on them.

There are a couple of songs and performances that transcend imitation: Jennifer Hudson's performance of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" and Eddie Murphy's songs. They're both great. That said, I'd rather see Jill Scott's and Erykah Badu's brilliant, uneasy performance of "You Got Me" in Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Jill Scott wrote the song for the Roots; Erykah Badu sang it in the recorded version and joins Scott onstage to perform it, and the result is something between a collaboration and a competition. That's a really amazing performance, partly because the dynamic between the two performers is unpredictable, and mostly because it's a better song than the one that Effie and Deena both record (as soul and as disco, respectively) in Dreamgirls. The final number of Dreamgirls has too much to do--provide redemption for Effie, promote cooperation between all four members of the group, give Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx) his comeuppance, etc.--to be a song that's memorable as a good piece of music. The performances have to carry the movie. Sometimes they do, but other times they're a reminder of the artistry that's only approximated in the songs themselves.


Anonymous Anonymous on Sat Jan 06, 01:56:00 PM:
I went to see Dreamgirls last night and was prepared for the satanic/Titanic line, thanks to your post. I DIDN'T REALIZE IT CAME SO EARLY IN THE MOVIE. Good grief.

I am also a musicals-hater (in spite of my secret love for The Sound of Music—shh!), and I grew up listening to a lot of Motown. I had a really hard time watching a movie that was supposedly about Motown when none of the music SOUNDED like Motown. It wasn't just the lyrics—it was the instrumentation and the orchestration, and it was fundamentally unconvincing. Too bad—somewhere there's a really good movie to be made about Motown.
Anonymous Anonymous on Sat Jan 13, 12:40:00 PM:
OK, so I won't waste my time. I had been wavering between going and not going since I too love the music but I hate musicals (to my poor musical-loving mother's disappointment). With a passion. You convinced me, enough said. Know anything about 'Notes on a scandal'?