College is Good Because You, Like, Learn Stuff

[College Tuition Bubble]

Only 281 days until Election Day! This means President Obama's proposals must meet a stringent three-point test before they are unveiled to the public:

  1. Will they help Obama get re-elected?
  2. Will they help Obama get re-elected?
  3. Will they help Obama get re-elected?
Any output from the White House these days is indistinguishable from a campaign document. So I had (at best) mixed feelings when the Upper Administration at the University Near Here mass-emailed down to us Underlings a messsage with the subject line "Suggested reading for all". Content was a single URL: Which (in turn) popped up a White House press release/campaign document: (HTML version here): "FACT SHEET: President Obama’s Blueprint for Keeping College Affordable and Within Reach for All Americans".

So UNH is pushing us to read Obama's propaganda. Worse, it's not even good propaganda. If I may summarize: it's a gimmick-filled sop to those concerned about runaway college costs. Convincing only to those who think that, despite all evidence to the contrary, Your Federal Government can do a effective job of making services more affordable. Here's the opening:

In his State of the Union address, President Obama laid out a blueprint for an economy that’s built to last – an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and a renewal of American values. As an important part of keeping the American promise alive, the President called for a comprehensive approach to tackling rising college costs. In today’s global economy, a college education is no longer just a privilege for some, but rather a prerequisite for all. To reach a national goal of leading the world with the highest share of college graduates by 2020, we must make college more affordable.
… or: yet another Soviet-style Five-Year Plan, meant to reassure the rubes that Obama is Doing Something About It. Winning this game doesn't involve providing useful services that people want; instead, a horde of college bureaucrats will be amply paid for jumping through myriad hoops that a horde of government bureaucrats will be amply paid to think up. Losers: students, parents, America.

A telling indicator of how much care went into preparing the document:

o The President is also proposing to begin collecting earnings and employment information for colleges, so that students can have an even better sense of the post post-graduation outcomes they can expect.
Not just post-graduation, mind you: we're talking post post-graduation.

For more amusement on the same topic, perhaps typical of the response of higher educators to the plan, you might check out the "Dear President Obama…" "open letter" composed for Inside Higher Ed by Professor Robert J. Sternberg of Oklahoma State Univerity. It is in the form of ten supplications to the Great Leader. I think I can summarize them down into four general pleas:

  1. Please don't make us do anything we don't want to.
  2. Please don't try to measure how well we're doing our jobs.
  3. Please don't look too closely at how we're spending money.
  4. Please keep the money flowing.
Check it out; am I being too harsh?

In loyal opposition to increased socialization of higher ed is Neal McCluskey at Cato. Worthwhile reading, especially his conclusion:

[…] if the president really wants to rein in costs he will call for significanlty reducing student aid, both the amount available to individual students, and the numbers of students eligible.

That, though, will probably not happen. Not only did the president talk up keeping aid cheap and casting an even wider net in his State of the Union, but taking the right course — cutting aid — means taking the politically tough course. And neither this president, nor almost anyone else in Washington, has ever signalled real willingness to do that. It’s just much easier to keep giving money away.

Or: if you think higher ed is overpriced now, just wait until President Obama is done making it more "affordable."

Last Modified 2012-09-24 5:39 AM EDT

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

[Amazon Link]

If geeks were to play their own version of David Lodge's "Humiliation" game, here would be my entry: I never got into the oeuvre of Douglas Adams at all. But this book showed up on this list of the "Top 10 Greatest Science Fiction Detective Novels Of All Time", and so …

I've not had the best results from that list. I'll keep trying.

The protagonist is young Rich MacDuff, software engineer working on applications for "WayForward Technologies" and its boss, Gordon Way. His current work is on a program that represents business data not in boring old spreadsheets and graphs, but in music. He has a sofa in his apartment that got stuck on a staircase; it's apparently impossible to move it further upward. More mystifyingly, it's also impossible to reverse the moves that got it into that position.

Rich is invited to attend the annual reading of Coleridge's poem ""Kubla Khan" at his alma mater, St. Cedd's College. He meets up with his old professor "Reg", who holds the position of "Regius Professor of Chronology". Originally established by George III, "to see if there was any particular reason why one thing happened after another, and if there was any way of stopping it." During their discussions, a horse turns up in Reg's bathroom. Did it come in the window?

In the meantime, Gordon Way, Rich's boss and the brother of Rich's girlfriend is murdered. Rich winds up a suspect, and that's where the titular Dirk Gently comes in. Can he pull together these various odd things into a coherent explanation?

You get the point: it's pretty silly. Adams' style hits a lot of comic bases: he's ironic in spots, witty in others, surreal in still others, … There are (probably) a lot more. I chuckled a lot more near the beginning of the book than I did near the end. The "look at how clever I am" schtick apparently doesn't work over a whole 300+ pages. And there's an additional irritant in Adams' "anything goes" plot; when anything goes, nothing really matters.

Last Modified 2012-09-24 6:33 AM EDT

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

[3.5 stars] Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) on IMDb

[Amazon Link]

A tragic tale of how well-intentioned scientific hubris can lead to … well, see the title.

James Franco plays Will, a scientist working desperately hard for a soulless corporation so he can come up with an Alzheimer's cure for his dad (John Lithgow). He tests it on primates, of course. Results are promising, but early demo goes disastrously wrong, and the company demands the primates be put down. Will, however, saves an exceedingly bright infant chimp, bringing him home, and naming him Caesar. Oh oh.

Things go less than smoothly; an altercation between Will's hothead neighbor and Will's demented father blows up into violence and Caesar gets incarcerated in a primate facility. The keepers put up a humane front for the outside world, and manage to deceive Will, but internally it's a Hobbesian nightmare where the apes are brutalized. Caesar, understandably, plots revolt.

There are a lot of nods to the original classic movie series, some subtle, some not so much. (Will someone say "Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!"? Yup.)

Lots of actors caused the "where have I seen them before" reaction. Fortunately, there's IMDB to provide near-instant relief. Will's hapless lab assistant, Franklin? Oh, yeah: he was Dale, in Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. And that sadistic keeper at the primate facility turned out to be Tom Felton, aka Draco Malfoy in eight Harry Potter movies. Is he doomed to play psychotic creeps for the rest of his career?

Last Modified 2012-09-24 6:37 AM EDT