Last Week’s Instapaper: March 16th Edition

As many article junkies are nowadays, I’m a big fan of Instapaper, which is “a simple tool to save web pages for reading later.” I use it to save long-form articles that I come across on the web. After saving and then reading an article in Instapaper, you can “Like” the article or archive/delete it from your account. Here are the articles I “liked” last week. I highly recommend each of them.

  • Making It in America (The Atlantic)
    “How, exactly, have some American manufacturers continued to survive, and even thrive, as global competition has intensified? What, if anything, should be done to halt the collapse of manufacturing employment? And what does the disappearance of factory work mean for the rest of us?”

  • Twitter, the Startup That Wouldn’t Die (BloombergBusinessweek)
    “Throughout its first five years of existence, Twitter always seemed on the verge of committing some excruciating form of startup seppuku… Now something freakish is happening in San Francisco. Twitter, which for years treated the responsibility of earning money as an annoying distraction, may be turning into a viable business.”

The Credentialess College

In an essay for The New Republic, “The Higher Education Monopoly is Crumbling As We Speak,” Kevin Carey writes that “the single greatest asset held by traditional colleges and universities is their exclusive franchise for the production and sale of higher education credentials.” He continues: “Just as people are ultimately interested in buying holes, not drills, higher education consumers aren’t buying courses or degree programs. They’re buying credentials.”

To some extent — hell, to a large extent — Carey is correct. The vast majority of college and university students go to school for purposes related to job training and career preparation. According to this 2009 article from the NY Times, only about 8% of college students pursue a degree in the humanities, and it’s been that way for decades. The rest of the students pursue degrees or credentials in business, technology, and the sciences. You also have to factor in the changing demographics of college students, where adult learners are quickly becoming the majority and where “slightly over half of today’s students are seeking a ‘subbacalaureate’ credential (i.e. a certificate, credential, or associate’s degree).”

Carey’s argument is that institutions of higher learning face a threat in the rise of a model “where the education itself costs students nothing—the availability of free open educational resources is constantly growing—and students only pay small fees to cover the cost of assessing their learning.”

All that might be true, but as a humanities kind of guy, I’m less interested in an education whose result is a professional-level certificate and more interested in an education whose process creates open-minded individuals capable of finding and creating meaning in their lives and in the lives of their fellows.

Six or seven years ago, when I was an undergrad at an environmental liberal arts college in Vermont, I designed a three-credit, independent study in the concept of memes (not “internet memes,” but “memes“). Now, the college I went to charged roughly $2,500 for a three-credit course. According to Kevin Carey, as a higher education consumer, I was hoping to receive some sort of professional benefit from designing that course. But as you can probably tell, unless I was to go into sociology or some branch of evolutionary studies, I wasn’t about to get a job or learn a valuable skill from pursuing the concept of memes.

So why I did design it and pay for it? Because it was a concept that interested me and I wanted to learn more about it. The studying of the subject was the value of the subject. I basically paid $2,500 — or really, when you factor in my Bachelor’s degree and my Master’s of Fine Arts degree, over a hundred thousand dollars — for the right to stop being a productive member of society and instead indulge myself with intellectual pursuits.

Unfortunately, we all seem to have an obligation to produce something for society. Ideally, for people like me, that means producing some sort of end result from each intellectual pursuit, a kind of travelogue of my mind’s journey, one that shows people either the value of following a similar path or wards them from chasing one of their similar thoughts into a dead-end. In reality, it means writing, publishing, and teaching.

But here’s the point. Kevin Carey’s article reports on the way the Internet is giving rise to a business model where the education is free, but the assessment will cost you. For people like me, however, where the assessment and credentials are not what interests us, the Internet provides an unlimited (and free!) education (and intellectual forum). The trick, I suppose, is to figure out how to build a business model on the idea.

I suppose I’m talking about a creating a kind of retreat…or monastery…where people pay for the privilege to be separated from the mundane drudgery of having to shelter and feed themselves while they explore the wonders of the human condition. They don’t receive a certificate from this experience, nor are they required to produce anything tangible as a result. What they’re paying for, in short, is spiritual and intellectual indulgence.

It’s a business model that would only appeal to those who can afford it, of course. But that’s essentially the business model of the entire vacation and tourism industries, and they seem to be doing okay.

Now I just need the land…

Religion For Atheists

From Aengus Woods‘ review of Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion

It is utterly impossible to get any sort of consensus on what we poor secularists need from religion. The beauty and danger of organized religion has always been its authoritarian aspect: It tells us what is wrong and what is right, what is healthy and what is impure. Apply these edicts to the secular world, and they begin to look suspiciously like indoctrination. Where is the place of criticality here, and exactly whose values get to be promoted?

Decaf Lifestyle

Back in December, I went through a small health issue that, among other things, resulted in my giving up caffeine. Prior to December, and for the previous ten years or so, I’d been a relatively hardcore coffee drinker. For most of that decade, I worked from home, so every morning, I’d brew a full pot of coffee and proceed to drink the majority of it by noon, which means about 12 cups of coffee a day. When I began a new job this past October that got me out of my house, I just replaced my (inexpensive) coffee pot with refills at the coffee shop across the street. The source (and cost) of my coffee had changed, but the volume remained the same.

But then my little health issue came along, and I decided to cut out caffeine.

The first day was the worst. The headache came on around 10am and didn’t leave me until I went to bed (and not even then). I popped some ibuprofen to dull the pain, but that only dampened the sharpest parts of it. I still had an all-around “ache” in my head. The second day was better. I took the ibuprofen first thing in the morning, re-upped in the afternoon, and pretty much got through the day without having to verbally complain to my wife about my pounding head. The third day, I forewent the ibuprofen, and the headache, while still present, was less of an ache and more of a nuisance.

And on the fourth day, it was gone.

As a hardcore coffee drinker, I’d always scoffed at people who drank decaf, but for the past three months, that’s basically the only coffee I’ve had (my wife decided to kick caffeine a little after I did, but after seeing me deal with the headache, she decided to ween herself instead of going cold turkey, so for a couple of weeks there, my first cup of coffee in the morning would be a home-brew of half-caf and half-decaf, with all the following cups being full decaf from the coffee shop). Some have asked why I’m drinking coffee at all if I’m drinking decaf, and the answer is: because I love the taste of coffee in the morning.

The problem with the decaf lifestyle is that…well…I’m tired in the afternoons. You know that friggin’ 5-hour Energy commercial, the one that talks about that 2:30 feeling? Well, that shit is true. At 2:30 in the afternoon, virtually every day, I get smacked in the face by a big ol’ bat of tiredness, and it pretty much doesn’t go away until after dinner. In fact, for the past two months or so, dinner has usually been followed by a cat nap…and it’s only after the nap that I feel anything resembling energy flow back into my body.

The solution to my mid-afternoon crash is simple, of course. Instead of requiring caffeine to fuel my day, I should exercise and use the body’s natural endorphins. Exercise fights fatigue and boosts energy. We know that. Now I just have to act on that knowledge.

Or…you know…I could just take another nap.

Last Week’s Instapaper: March 6th Edition

As many article junkies are nowadays, I’m a big fan of Instapaper, which is “a simple tool to save web pages for reading later.” I use it to save long-form articles that I come across on the web. After saving and then reading an article in Instapaper, you can “Like” the article or archive/delete it from your account. Here are the articles I “liked” last week. I highly recommend each of them.

  • Those Fabulous Confabs (New York Magazine)
    “To judge by TED’s remarkable success, we may well be living in a golden age of ideas, a time not just of counter-counter-­counter­intuitive concepts but of their exhilarating democratization. Yet it’s also possible to see in TED’s recent growth strategies the marks of desperation and dilution. With more and more conferences fighting over the same speakers, sponsors, guests, and ideas, the sustainability of the movement has begun to look increasingly tenuous. Might there be a cap on the number of interesting ideas in the universe?”

  • The End of Wall Street As They Knew It (New York Magazine)
    “Banks have always had occasional bad years, but the sense on Wall Street is that this bad year is different. Over the past several weeks, I have had wide-ranging conversations with more than two dozen senior Wall Street executives, traders, bankers, hedge-fund managers, and private-equity investors. And what emerged is a picture of an industry afflicted by a crisis it would not be flip to call existential.”

  • The Hunter Becomes the Hunted (Esquire)
    “You don’t know his name, and you’ve never seen his face. But this year, as America leaves Iraq for good after eight years of war, we also leave behind a man believed by our military and intelligence agencies to be the best terrorist hunter alive. He’s still there, hunting. And so are the terrorists.”

  • Elaine Pagels on the Book of Revelation (The New Yorker)
    “Pagels shows that Revelation, far from being meant as a hallucinatory prophecy, is actually a coded account of events that were happening at the time John was writing. It’s essentially a political cartoon about the crisis in the Jesus movement in the late first century, with Jerusalem fallen and the Temple destroyed and the Saviour, despite his promises, still not back. All the imagery of the rapt and the raptured and the rest that the “Left Behind” books have made a staple for fundamentalist Christians represents contemporary people and events, and was well understood in those terms by the original audience. Revelation is really like one of those old-fashioned editorial drawings where Labor is a pair of overalls and a hammer, and Capital a bag of money in a tuxedo and top hat, and Economic Justice a woman in flowing robes, with a worried look.”

  • Obama, Explained (The Atlantic)
    “Has Obama in office been anything like the chess master he seemed in the campaign, whose placid veneer masked an ability to think 10 moves ahead, at which point his adversaries would belatedly recognize that they had lost long ago? Or has he been revealed as just a pawn—a guy who got lucky as a campaigner but is now pushed around by political opponents who outwit him and economic trends that overwhelm him?”

  • How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy (The Atlantic)
    “The ‘latent’ parasite [in our cat’s urine] may be quietly tweaking the connections between our neurons, changing our response to frightening situations, our trust in others, how outgoing we are, and even our preference for certain scents. And that’s not all. He also believes that the organism contributes to car crashes, suicides, and mental disorders such as schizophrenia.”

Letter from the Front

The night was thirty-two degrees
and a despicable wind shook the trees,
stirred the flames inside the pit,
froze the men and knocked their knees.

The colonel’s tent stayed tight and fit,
the ropes strapped down with pegs befit
to restrain Goliath, even seizure seized;
it would last until the wind remit.

The colonel’s hand, all gnarled with age,
released the pen and turned the page,
“Oh dear wife, this wind,” he wrote,
“seems born from a god consumed with rage.

“I can taste the anger burning His throat
“and smell the cinders, if only a note,
“but fear most, dear wife, what I cannot gauge,
“why He wants my men to float

“across the deep dark river of the newly dead?
“As if our enemies, battling in His stead,
“carry all that righteousness can imbue,
“and we, the downtrodden, evil-led

“army raised of peasant sympathy and hue,
“deserve nothing but pain for our stillborn coup.
“But confirm, dear wife, what my mind most dreads,
“that our Great Leader, indeed, has flew

“the capitol city, where I once raised a toast
“to celebrate the death of the man hated most,
“who robbed our banks and polluted our streams,
“and murdered children from the farms to the coast,

“a man who you once told me never had dreams,
“never experienced the mind’s great extremes,
“or the surreal illusion of a woman engrossed
“in positions to match pyschological themes?

“Is it true, dear wife,” the colonel penned,
“that our Great Leader’s fate has met its end?”
The colonel’s eyes watered with thoughts
of his hero retreating cowardly; poor friend.

The colonel pushed his tears, sniffed his snot,
regripped the pen, wrote, “It’s all for naught,
“that I will die before I amend
“my wrongdoings; but such is my lot.

“Remember when this started? The trip to Rome
“and the Great Leader’s speech beneath the dome
“(‘course he hadn’t become our Great Leader yet,
“just a man we knew from someplace back home)?

“But there he was, all fire and sweat,
“telling us of ills we could not forget,
“inspiring us to raise up guns of chrome,
“and charge into battle against powers unmet

“by any other power that ever bled the dirt:
“not Khan, not Ceasar, nor the Soviet curtain,
“nor the thundering hooves of the dinosaurs.
“Our only power was that we struck in concert,

“and we fought with a savageness that the mind abhors;
“we weren’t too good to pile scalps on the shores,
“or too squeemish to write blood squirt
“messages that confirmed their wives as whores:

“we’d get personal if we had to, and had to we did,
“for their might and their numbers scared us, though hid,
“so we raped their women and murdered their sons,
“and our Great Leader laughed at the display of our id,

“told us he understood and thought our actions in fun,
“despite it being against his principles, for one,
“and the principles of proper warfare, forbid!
“But still, he allowed us to go until done.

“Tell me, dear wife, could our actions, do tell,
“be the reason the god plays out our death knell?
“We brought freedom, it’s true, our dear liberty,
“but maybe we carried it too long through Hell

“and soiled it with the blood spilled most bitterly
“by the enemies of the Leader’s inspired liturgy,
“not to mention the women who would scream and yell
“as we tore them apart outwardly and inwardly.

“Could a revolution ever sustain
“a beginning so evil and so profane
“as the beginning we gave it back in the Spring,
“when my soldiers and I caused such anguish and pain?”

Outside the wind with cold words sings,
and inside the colonel’s eyes start to sting
as he realizes what he’s done to bring down the rage
of the god who would soon put an end to this thing.

“Dear wife,” he writes, “Forgive me.”

The Ballad of the NPC (Part II)

The following is a work in progress. Read The Ballad of the NPC (Part I) before you begin.

I am not alone. Knowledge of this fact puzzles me, but it remains true. I am not alone. The instructions that I receive imply that something else has the potential for interacting with my illusion. It is not my place to know what that something else might be, or where it might come from, or what it might be doing to intrude on my illusion’s visit to the break room.

This is what I know. When it arrives, it arrives as a surprise. It interrupts my scanswitchpainting with further instructions as to how to make my illusion behave. The instructions, however, do no read like a message from a superior. They read like an explanation of a cause and effect, minus the cause; it is my job to enact the effect in my illusion.

There is a sense of freedom in the way I do my job. When a human man falls from a great height, he cannot choose whether to continue to fall; he can, however, choose the style in which he falls. I can make similar choices for my illusion.

And yet, whenever the surprise arrives, I find that my illusion inevitably responds with fear. He runs and screams; he freezes; or he cowers under his desk. The freedom I have over the reaction of my illusion seems to be limited to whether I want his shirt to billow behind him as runs; whether I want him to blink as he freezes in shock; or whether I want his glasses to fall off as he rocks back and forther under his desk.

The last time the surprise arrived, my illusion was on his way back to his cubicle. The instructions called for my illusion to react to a loud, repetitive noise coming from somewhere behind him. I turned his head to the right, only to find another instruction that called for a small red-gushing hole to appear in his left cheek; this was immediately followed by an instruction to make his left ear explode off his head. As various bits of the ear departed from his body, I no longer had control of their destiny; they exited the purview of my scanswitchpaint. Another instruction notified me that my illusion needed to fall to the ground and remain still. As he fell, I chose to make his body twist violently to the left, such that, when he landed on the illusion of the aisle, his back against a cubicle, his right arm would drape over his chest and head would loll to the left. I continued to scanswitchpaint around the boundary of my illusion, awaiting the next instruction, which, sooner than I would have expected, told me to erase myself.

Do you see the cause of my shame?