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Category: Culture

The best that has been thought and written and why these ideals are difficult to meet.

July 9, 2010 | 12 Comments

Students Studying Less: Shocking Report

A new campus joke: “Dude, she was all like, ‘What’s that building? It’s, like, so big.’ And I go, ‘That’s the library. There’s like so many books.”

Ha ha ha ha!

Oh, how the tears roll down my face every time I hear that one. It’s the image conjured in the mind, you see. Those wacky kids actually know what the library is!

Of course, knowing where the library was, what was in it, and intuiting the purpose of the objects held there used to be a commonplace. But now, according to Philip Babcock (UC Santa Barbara) and Mindy Marks (UC Riverside), modern students have better things to do than—I love this phrase— engage in “long-form reading“.

You know it’s bad news when academics have to invent a new term to replace an old, perfectly serviceable one. “Reading” used to mean, “reading books.” Now, barely having the patience to scan the 140-characters of a Tweet counts as “short-form reading.” Poor “reading”! It was such a useful word, but it has been massacred by intellectuals.

Babcock and Marks had to rely on self report, and on surveys taken then and now. So all their results should be viewed with caution. For example, how many students, when approached by a campus survey taker, who might well be a professor, will honestly answer “0” when asked how many hours she studies?

A survey from 1961 said kids hit the books about 24 hours a week. That makes sense, since then, as now, the average kid was in class about 15 hours a week. The total is, of course, the standard 40-hour work week.

But current numbers average around 14 hours. In a similar study, “some 32 percent of college freshmen somehow managed to study less than six hours a week.” However, there is a bright spot: there is no political correctness at play:

The decline, Babcock and Marks found, infects students of all demographics. No matter the student’s major, gender, or race, no matter the size of the school or the quality of the SAT scores of the people enrolled there, the results are the same: Students of all ability levels are studying less.

One theory for the decline is that students are more efficient now than then. The evidence for this is as strong as for the existence of Bigfoot. They sure are more distracted, though. All fellow professors who have had this experience, raise your hands: A roomful of kids crack open their computers or uncase their phones and start clacking away during the lecture.

I say, “We don’t need our computers now. Close them up.” Some complain they take notes—presumably posting them to Facebook—and I say, “Don’t take notes. Listen! Besides, everything I say is said better in the book, which you can read.” But then we’re right back to the starting joke.

Babcock and Marks also speculate—though a better word would be “declare”—that teacher evaluations, the forum where poor students take their revenge, has produced a sort of long-term arms race. Professors, knowing that their tenure and promotions depend in part on good ratings, ease off—ever so slightly!—so that the darlings in their charge bump up the number of stars awarded. Others undoubtedly spend more time primping hoping to earn that elusive hotness mark on

Others say, “Of course students concentrate less on classwork! They’re busy being engaged.” A modern term which is the obvious euphemism of “not studying.”

Maybe students are being rational anyway. Under grade inflation, another consequence of the arms-race, employers look less to grades—why bother, when everybody has an A- average—and instead look to external activities.

Marks herself points out that employers don’t generally care about the content of job applicants’ classes; they’re more interested in whether an applicant graduated, was able to meet deadlines, and work within a bureaucracy.

Nowhere did I see mentioned one of the most important reasons why studying has declined. In 1961, only a small fraction of high school graduates attended college. Those that did were intellectually, on average, the best of the crop of kids coming out of school.

But now, the fraction marching from Pomp and Circumstance straight to the ivied walls is much larger, and growing. Many complain the fraction isn’t growing quickly enough! Many would like to see all go to college, this state of grace being declared a new right.

Well, fine. Let all attend; more work for me. But do not expect academic standards to remain high. Just as not everybody can slam dunk a basketball or play the cello in the New York Philharmonic, not all can assimilate the material in a classic (as was) education.

A specific prediction: as the fraction of graduates entering college increases, the number of average hours study will decrease.

July 1, 2010 | 12 Comments

In Defense of World Cup Enjoyment: A Response to Dalrymple

The much loved, and surely respected, Theodore Dalrymple does not like soccer. He says of soccer fans, “Try as I might to expunge the thought from my mind that this enthusiasm is a manifestation of human stupidity, I cannot.”

However, it appears Dalrymple’s dislike of soccer is nothing more than a disgust of his adopted homeland’s national team. Nine-tenths of his essay is given over to picking on the French; nowadays, an all too easy avocation. He reminds us of the French soccer team’s on-camera attitude toward the Marseillaise: “[They] refused to sing it or accord it any respect.” This is just as well. Do you even know the words of this catchy tune? Here’s the first verse and chorus:


Come, children of the Fatherland.
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us, Tyranny’s
Bloody banner is raised,
Do you hear in the countryside
Those ferocious soldiers roaring?
They come up to your arms
To slit the throats of your sons and wives!

To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
May an impure blood
Water our furrows!

Our National Anthem has a whiff of far off battle, of bombs bursting in air; at least there are no reports of shrapnel or casualties. But he French song is a detailed recipe for cooking up aristocratic sausage. Vive la Révolution! Let the heads of chemists be used as footballs.

But to return to soccer: It’s true that the French team behaved appallingly; their antics were embarrassing and petulant. The good doctor says, “The players appeared to be expressing their disdain for the country they supposedly represented and that had enabled them to become multi-millionaires by the age of 20.”

Well, c’est la France, you might think. A once glorious country, but now a people that are voluntarily committing cultural suicide (well, is there any other way except voluntarily?). But why pick on soccer? Why say, as Dalrymple did say, “When bread is assured, circuses fill men’s minds”?

Look, after you’ve found enough food to fill your belly and the bellies of your family, and you have secured a place to rest your head protected from men and other beasts and the elements, there isn’t much of necessity left to do.

The delights of high culture, it is true, soothes the soul and tames our savage nature. But real advances in science in art are given to us by the very few. When we start to believe that any can contribute, we have the situation in which we find ourselves today, where the “art” and architecture bestowed upon us by our award-winning bohemians is a positive menace. It would be better if these thin-rimmed-glasses-wearing, black-clad, humorless, controversy-grubbing, self-congratulatory dilettantes spent their time watching sports rather than infecting us with their “creations.”

In other words, what’s an average fellow whose bread is assured to do with all the free time afforded him? Watching a sport that occurs only once every four years, and then only over a one-month period, seems harmless enough. Rooting for your country’s team is a pleasant diversion, and if they win, it is a small joy. And by the end of the summer, it will all be forgotten.

There is a difference between “fan” and “fanatic”, of course. It’s also so that many forget that sport is entertainment and not war. Many seek a perfection in the games as if they had an enormous monetary, or even physical, stake in the outcomes. But I think we exaggerate the number of truly obsessed. We are not all Brasilians. For most of us, it is an adjunct which can be, and is, abandoned when the pressures of earning more bread intrude.

It’s my guess that most sports snobs—I mean, those who evince snobbery against those who enjoy watching sports—did not play, or hated playing, competitively while young. They were the ones picked last or not at all. Because of the lack of muscle memory, they do not have the same urge to act out the play as it occurs; they cannot feel the the Chris Matthews-like tingle up their legs when the striker nears the goal and should shoot!

And when these ex-waifs see such behavior in what otherwise would be civilized men, they, like Dalrymple, feel that sports are “decerebrating.” See what I mean? Anybody who can insult that well must have spent more time in the library with the books than on the field with the ball.

June 28, 2010 | 25 Comments

No Replay In Soccer: Sepp Blatter, Hold Strong!

Hold the line, Sepp. Don’t buckle under the pressure, which now is intense and hot, but soon will be slack and not even tepid. We do not need to let replay “technology”—the word that everybody now favors—into the beautiful game.

Yes, the referees missed awarding a lackluster England a goal against Germany. We know this because the replay—in this case—was clear. It isn’t always clear, of course. But here, we could see it and we know that, at least in the eyes of many Germans, a weird sort of justice was done.

Justice? Consider: in the Cup final in 1966, England’s Geoff Hurst shot and hit the (West) German crossbar. The ball bounced. Over the line, claimed the English. Before the line, said the Germans. The referees agreed with England, who went on to win 4-2.

So, because of Sunday, in the minds of many German fans anyway, the score is now even: one bad goal equals another.

Fabio Capello Weeps Once More
Did Sunday’s un-awarded goal change the outcome? Fabio Capello assumed the counterfactual: had Lampard’s goal counted, England, he said, could have at least drawn. But many viewers, and less passionate assessors, took the opposite view: England did not play well over four games and were on their way home no matter what. To prove their point, we may merely say, “Wayne Rooney?”

Ah, but even if you buy that, we must still account for the missed offsides call against Argentina, when Carlos Tevez headed in a Messi pass. Here’s the strange thing about this: played live, it did look like a legitimate goal. But even when played in “slo-mo”, and even though our brains are telling us that Tevez is offside, it still doesn’t appear like he was offside, the play was that chaotic.

Again the counterfactual: would Mexico have won had that goal been disallowed? Doubtful at best. Although—and this has nothing to do with the issue at hand—Argentina’s goaltender Sergio Romero stinks, and that’s putting it nicely. Every shot on goal Mexico made—and there just weren’t enough—flummoxed the poor man. Klose, Podolski, and the rest of the German side are going to eat him alive Saturday.

The view of some old fogies is that imperfections are part of the game. Bad calls pass into lore and, like it or not, increase interest in the game. Who realizes this better than Maradona? Everybody who knows about Maradona’s divine intervention, raise their hands. This is a story, rich in detail and drama, that will never be forgotten.

The slippery slope? Let video “technology” in for “disputed” goals—which, by definition, means a set of rules must be generated to describe what “disputed” implies—and soon we will have to have it for “controversial” offsides, and then for “flagrant, but missed” fouls. And since it will take minutes—tick, tick, tick….—-to review each of these calls—a farcical spectacle in which a referee sticks his head under a blanket to play and re-play and re-re-play a tape—some bright boy will think, “Aha! Why let those minutes just pass by wasted? Why not insert a short commercial?”

And if you allow commercials, why not stick in a few times outs? After all, ninety minutes is a long time to run. Those poor fellows get awfully tired. And think about the children! I don’t know how, but somebody will figure how the uninterrupted flow of today’s game “might” lead to injury, trauma, etc., etc.

You don’t feel the force of the slippery slope? Somewhat blind to history are we? Well, never mind, and instead ponder this one. The game played today can be compared to the game played yesterday. We can count the number of goals Messi scores (if he does) with those scored by his boss. But introduce “technology” and then that comparison forever after has an asterisk.

Like it or not—and I do not—any change in the rules changes the game in ways both predictable and unpredictable. Nobody can effectively argue the opposite. We must not allow soccer to degrade into, say, what American football has become: in which grown men prance up to a field and toss little red hankies at the referees to show their displeasure. How manly!

One thing oft forgotten is that technology changes, usually by improving. The laser beams of today are not the same as they were last year. The corollary is that the technology now is imperfect. That means that there is a small, but far from zero, chance that the “technology” will provide ambiguous—or even false—information. Plus, the information provided a year from now will be different than that provided now. This ensures that the game constantly changes to adapt.

There is not enough respect for tradition; people forget the reason the game is being played. But Sepp Blatter—God bless him—has not.

June 26, 2010 | 15 Comments

More Bad Music; Class Wrap-Up; Go USA

Way Behind Back

Thanks to everybody who stuck through the lectures, such as they were, for the last two weeks. I wrote these “lessons” over about a twenty-minute period each morning as I was preparing for class. What showed up on the blog did not, to any real extent, make its way to class.

There was no time for preparing more complete articles. Class lasted a solid nine to five, with mornings given to prep and/or recovery and afternoons left for working on consulting projects.

Ideas posted here are necessarily sketchy, too. If I were to fully develop or prove any claim, it would take too much space or time or both. Most readers would rapidly lose patience. However, since some readers clearly want more detail, I will try, as best I can, to post accompanying papers, especially to the more controversial ideas in probability.

When I left for Ithaca, I had exactly four emails in my Inbox; now, the number is best characterized as vast. Lots of people sent great links, story ideas, and comments. I promise to answer or post these over the next week.

Shift-work Disorder

The invention of new mental medical maladies continues apace. The latest is “shift-work disorder”. It is, we are told confidently, a “medical” disorder. Commercials—“Talk to your doctor now”—for new pills to combat this awful affliction now appear regularly on the radio.

And just what horrors await those who suffer from shift-work disorder? Generally, tiredness, caused by inconstancy in sleep patterns. Surprise! Because you feel lagged after switching from day to nights, that sluggishness you experience is not just because you haven’t slept well, but because you now have a syndrome, which, through the application of money and pills, can be treated.

Bad Music Isn’t Just Simple

Remember this article? We created a new measure of musical badness:

Musical Badness (MB) quantified is this: the proportion of the time a length of music is devoted to repetitiveness.

MB is thus a number between 0 and 1. Consider our three examples: the endless tone has a melodic MB of precisely 1 because the repetition is exact however long the “piece” lasts; the harmonic MB is also 1 and for the same reason; as is the lyric MB, obviously.

A score of 0, it must be emphasized, does not indicate goodness: our score says nothing directly about excellence. For example, a chaotic series of “bleeps” and “bloops” supposedly emanating from a computer, such as were often heard in 1950s science fiction movies, would score very low on the melodic MB, but in no sense would this music be good. Neither would singing the dictionary make for a sublime lyric.

“Bleeps and bloops” are not constrained to the movies; they can also be found on stage. Terry Teachout, drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, today points us to a paper by Fred Lerdahl, “Cognitive constraints on compositional systems.” (PDF) Lerdahl tells us that he is “not interested in passing judgement on the composers and compositions that are mentioned”, but he does show us that very complicated music—the opposite of that categorized by the MB scale—can be just as bad as simplistic music.

You need merely read the first sentence of this paper to get the gist: “Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maftre (1954) was widely hailed as a masterpiece of post-war serialism. Yet nobody could figure out, much less hear, how the piece was serial.”

Ah, modern “art.” As long as it is “complex” or “controversial”, it is proclaimed “good.” Here, Boulez is both, but especially complex. Lerdhal says that “The lack of redundancy [in Boulez’s piece] perhaps overwhelms the listener’s processing capacities.”

This, then, is the opposite end of the MB scale. The MB can, as originally anticipated, be adapted to qualify overly-complex as bad. Both very high and very low MB numbers imply a high probability of rotten music.

More to follow…(I think I figured a way to actually implement this in software; just have to find time to do it!)

Finance Bill Emphasizes “Consumer” Protection

The new finance bill builds in, we are told, a “consumer watchdog agency.” But “agency” means, as it always does, bureaucracy. A new layer of government, that is; a layer which, like its brothers, will require feeding from the public trough; a place of dining which will soon be discovered (once more) to be too small to accommodate all the hungry mouths.

Anyway, I detest, as I’ve said many times, the word “consumer.” It indicates both avarice and slavishness at the same time. It tells us our only function in life is to consume, consume, consume. To consume what? Just what we are told to.

The word was never needed. We already had the serviceable “persons” or “people”, or even the more proper “citizens.”

The OED tells us that the word originated—as early as 1692; an instance is produced from Locke—as the technical opposite of “producer”, and in that context, it is forgivable. But it no longer means just that. It now means a beast-like thing, an automaton with unstoppable chomping jaws aimlessly wandering through malls and snapping up whatever is within reach.

Indeed, the earlier, non-technical definition of the word, says the OED, was negative. From the Bible: “Mal. iii. 11, I shal reproue the consumer for youre sakes.” Amen to that.


USA 2, Ghana 0.