Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The List

For the past few weeks - since my resignation at NALU - I've been mired in a search for an appropriate PhD program.  If you know anything about academia, you know that my timing is particularly awkward, because most programs put their deadlines smack dab in the middle of December, which is, you know, very soon.  So I've been exploring research angles, having conversations, browsing websites, sending emails, and doing all the legwork I need to do as quickly as possible.

The result is that, as of today, I've made my decision as to where I'm applying, and for what.  I don't think it's a perfect list, but it's a list, it's actionable, and I know - or at least strongly suspect - I would be happy in any of the programs I've narrowed my search down to.  So, without further ado, here are the five programs.

Stanford University, Learning Sciences and Technology Design

I'll be applying to LSTD for the third time, and from a third completely different angle.  When I was accepted to LDT I applied at both the Master's and PhD levels, but my application was broad and vague to a degree that made me an undesirable PhD candidate.  Last year, I wrote a more specific statement of purpose, but unfortunately my specific interests didn't align with anyone at the University.  This time, and now that I know the Professors better (and they know me better), I feel I can write an even better statement of purpose, and potentially latch on with a suitable advisor.

In short, the question I'm pushing will be this: what is the most effective design in terms of providing students access to secondary, tertiary, and contextual sources?  There are more than a few angles here, including whether it's better to simply let students surf the Internet for contextual information about the books they're reading or the history they're learning, or whether there are ways to specifically limit that vast set of information.  Likewise, one might focus on the difference between learning from primary source materials alone versus learning from primary source material supplemented by secondary sources, interpretations, and contextual information.  Regardless, it is vital to consider pedagogy here, as well, and what kind of teaching goes best with what kind of information.

So yeah, that's jargony, I know.  But it's also the kind of focused question that not only might help me get into a school that I do love, but also would set me up to be a successful doctoral student there, with a sufficiently nuanced, but also sufficiently broad research question.

University of Chicago, Committee on Social Thought

Now I haven't really chosen a specific research focus here yet, but the program is fascinating to me.  Perhaps the most appealing part of this program is its breadth, and its inherent similarity to the St. John's education I received as an undergraduate.  Indeed, the program shares common roots with St. John's and the "Great Books" curriculum - as well as the dialogic pedagogy - they use.

The Committee on Social Thought website states that students are encouraged to come without a specific dissertation topic already in mind, but rather a broader area.  The purpose of the first two years, then, is to study a variety of works in that area, to select a dozen-ish of them, and then to begin laying the groundwork for doing a dissertation on the confluence of themes and ideas in those dozen books.  So, really, it's like a Johnny's dream.

The broader area, however, is something I still need to think about.  The application asks me to check a box: philosophy, literature, history, classics, or art history.  I'm inclined towards literature and/or art history, and perhaps even the combination of the two.  Peter Quince at the Clavier is, of course, an example of that intersection, and something I felt compelled to write about for fun.  I'm leaning, however, towards an explicit study of art history in the form of music.  That would be in line with my undergraduate thesis, on the one hand, but would allow me to reach far beyond the narrow scope that I began to explore in my paper about Beethoven's 3rd and 9th Symphonies.

Needless to say, this won't be as specific and jargony an application as my Stanford one will be, but I dare say it's not supposed to be.  Rather, this program would signal a return to my educational roots, but at a much higher level of sophistication.  And, armed with some knowledge of education and technology design, who knows what fun ways I'll come up with to synthesize my learning.

University of California Santa Clara, History of Consciousness

Besides having an awesome name, this program fulfills the requirement of being sufficiently cross-disciplinary and creative for my liking.  The website notes that the program is "in transition," and that the next cohort will be a smaller-than-usual one, which doesn't necessarily bode well.  But, on the other hand, that means that if I am not a good fit, it's extremely unlikely I'd get in.

I'm applying, however, because my intuition says that I am a good fit.  Unlike Chicago, UCSC asks for applicants to have a fairly specific project in mind, and of the faculty research interests they list perhaps the most interesting to me is "global capitalism and cultural process."  Now, I have almost no economics background, but culture and I spend a fair amount of time with each other, and the relationship between the two is the kind of question that I could easily get lost in for a few years.

That said I'm also intrigued by the possibility of formulating some of my own questions about culture and learning.  More than any non-education program, it strikes me that I might be able to formulate the intersection of my questions about culture, learning, and technology into a single actionable research path.  The question, of course, is if anyone at UCSC is interested in that kind of thing.  If not, well, that's why I'm applying to five schools.  If so, then maybe this is the place.

University of California San Diego, Communications

Yes, that is half of a green telephone at the top of their website.

The program here was described by someone I trust very much as "the only good communications program in the country."  So I figure it's worth an application.  Back before I enrolled in the LDT program, I looked long and hard at communications as a field that I might want to do graduate work in.  I think that education ended up being the right choice in the short term, but now that I have at least some education background, branching out into a cross-disciplinary communications program makes sense.

One of UCSD's Communications listed sub-genres is, in fact, "mediational theories of mind and of learning."  UCSD might be, for that reason, the perfect place to pursue something along the lines of a study of how people learn music, and in what role "communication" plays in that learning.  That would be an outgrowth, in some ways, of my undergraduate studies combined with my graduate work at Stanford.  In short, it would be wonderfully synthetic of what I have already done, meaning I can write a compelling application, and I would enjoy the hell out of studying it because I could go so much deeper into the issues at hand than I had an opportunity to as an undergraduate (or Master's student).

University of Hawaii, Educational Foundations

Perhaps the least "ambitious" of my applications, I nevertheless feel as though there are significant benefits to potentially staying in Hawaii and receiving a PhD from the School of Education at UH.  For one thing, if Jericha and I want to live and work in Hawaii in the long term, I could do worse than getting a degree from UH.  It's hard to explain, but I honestly believe that a PhD at UH will get you further in Hawaii than a degree from Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Oxford, or any other school.  That's just the way it is here.

Beyond the practical, however, I'm happy to note that UH has a very interesting School of Education.  Like all of UH's programs, the Educational Foundations program is cross-cultural.  And, moreover, it strikes me as fairly interdisciplinary as well.  That is, the goal is to understand what is at the heart of education, and how to build meaningful thought and learning processes that serve as a foundation for further learning.  The question "How do we learn?" may be too broad for PhD work, but it's a good entry point, especially coupled with the cultural question: "In what ways do different people's learning differ, and what do various cultures and peoples have in common?"

In summary, I am legitimately excited about the possibilities in all five of these programs.  What's more, the geography is agreeable as well.  The three California schools are, of course, in the good parts of the state (two in the Bay Area, one in San Diego), the Hawaii school is, well, yeah.  And the University of Chicago may be in Chicago, which would test my anti-Cubs patience, but is also the location of the Baha'i National Assembly for the United States, which would make Jericha very happy.  Plus, a lot of people do swear by Chicago, and it does have a good reputation as big cities go.

Unfortunately, deadlines loom, and so I'll be holed up working for the next couple of weeks.  Then, once I'm done, I'll be waiting for a few months.  Ah, academia.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sample Size and College Football

If you didn't watch Boise State's simultaneously epic and tragic loss to the University of Nevada last night, you've probably heard about it already.  Chances are, you've also already hear the arguments: this proves that Boise didn't belong in the National Title conversation in the first place, or this proves that even the WAC teams still have to compete every week, and Boise's dominance meant it was extremely worthy of its ranking.

The truth of the matter is, the vast majority of people have chosen a side in the AQ versus non-AQ argument already, and are not at all interested in trying to think objectively.  That a game like Boise's loss to Nevada can affirm either position just goes to show that most people - and probably most people on both sides the argument - don't have the slightest clue what they're talking about.  The challenge, however, is not remaining objective, but rather finding appropriate evidence to determine whether a team like a Boise State or a TCU deserves national recognition and, in the event of an undefeated season, a possible chance to play for the National Championship.

The issue here is sample size.  I've been accused, before, of being too baseball-centric in my thinking about football, but I think that just tries to brush off the bigger issue.  The reality is, football - and college football in particular - is a sport of small sample sizes.  A full season is only a dozen games, there's no balanced schedule, and even the very best teams might lose thanks to a bad bounce on a fumble, a mistaken penalty call, or a missed chip-shot field goal.  What's more, a football team is not a single entity, playing in a vacuum.  It might very well be that Nevada is better than Boise State, but Boise is better than Hawaii, and Hawaii is better than Nevada.

What I mean is this: Nevada might be "better" because their roster is perfectly adapted to defeat Boise State's, and so on.  Match-ups are everything in football, and gameplans the rest.  It is almost certainly true that Alabama and Auburn have better players than Oregon, and Oregon has better players than TCU or Boise.  I don't doubt that for a minute.  What I do doubt, however, is that just as Oregon would struggle in the SEC, Alabama and Auburn would struggle in the PAC-10.  The reason?  The match-ups are different, the styles are different, the gameplanning is different.

I don't know any of that for certain, but it's a suspicion I have from the aggregate of small samples I've seen.  I would add, however, that I do put some stock in computer rankings.  Yes, the very same rankings that the media loves to disparage for their nonsensical orderings of teams and conferences (Sagarin, into this week, and if you let him keep scoring margin as part of the equation, which the BCS doesn't, ranks Oregon 1, Stanford 2, Auburn 5, among other things).  Of course the media doing the disparaging here has their own ranking system which is entirely subjective, and heavily weighted to the most recent result.

Given football's small sample sizes, you've probably heard that you have to consider a team's "entire body of work."  You have to consider strength of schedule, and prestige of opponents, and other intangible factors.  The thing is, most of that is not only tangible, it's quantifiable, and the computers do a much better job of actually considering a team's whole body of work than even the most well-informed voter does.  The computer can seamlessly consider games played, opponents played, strength of schedule to two or three or four tiers, and overall conference strength.  The different computers weight all of those things differently, of course, but that the BCS uses a variety of rankings and drops the best and worst is a mark in its favor.

There is heavy resistance to computer rankings because they often don't pass the alleged smell-test, just like fielding statistics that say that Derek Jeter isn't a great fielder.  Oh wait.

In all seriousness, though, the computers here are constrained by sample size in a way that advanced baseball statistics generally are not, but the analogy is a strong one.  We have our old statistics - Won-Loss record, conference and conference standing, opponent lists - and we have new, more advanced statistics that take into account score differential and opponent's opponents, and so on.  The problem is, when the more advanced, harder-to-calculate statistics show that Auburn is #5, or when they show that a one-loss Stanford is better than an undefeated Boise State and TCU, we scoff at them because they don't align with our subjective, entrenched, traditional approaches.

Of course, as I've said before, the biggest problem here isn't even sample size or public perceptions or the media or the stickiness of tradition.  No, the biggest problem is cognitive dissonance: the notion in our head that one team must be better than another.  The idea that we can quantify football team quality at all.  Is Boise State a 93 or a 94 out of 100?  Does their kicker's misses yesterday drop them all the way to 83?  Is it maybe true that they would crush Oregon, but be crushed by Auburn (or vice versa)?  Is it maybe true that, even for a full season, they could compete in the SEC (because a full season is still a small sample)?  Is it maybe true, on the other hand, that they would go 3-9 playing Alabama's schedule?

It's impossible to say, and, what's more, it's irrelevant.  Most of those questions are predicated on the notion that there's a simple answer to the question "Which team is better?"  There's not.  There never is.  And, even if there was, the samples we're working with in football are too small to answer the question.  All we have, then, is the drama of single games, of missed field goals and overtime wins.  The point of college football is not to crown the best team in the nation, but to crown a Champion.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Reviewing Final Fantasy XIII

As a person who has played a great many games, it may sound surprising that Final Fantasy XIII is the first FF title I've played in full.  Oh, I dabbled in a PC port of the infamous sixth edition, and played a significant portion of 12 back when I had access to a PS2.  Now, however, I actually have a *gasp* console in the form of a PS3 (which, I'll add, doubles as a DVD player, and connects to the Internet), and Final Fantasy and I were made for each other.

Why is that?  Because the hallmark of the series has always been innovative and clever tactical battles, combined with excellent story telling.  You may recall the place that Mass Effect holds in my gamer's heart (though I have not yet played ME2), thanks largely to its story telling and its deceptively tactical - for an FPS - gameplay.  Add into that Final Fantasy's usually creative leveling systems, and you have the making of some of the best roll playing games in the world.

Now I've been told that, because I'm not a veteran of the series, XIII would not seem disappointing to me in the way it would to die-hards.  I think that's probably right.  Final Fantasy XIII is an exceptionally well polished game, well-told, beautiful, with excellent music and decent voice acting, an engaging enough story, and compelling characters.  But, despite all of that, it's extremely railroaded, teetering somewhere in between pure adventure-gaming story telling and epic RPG awesomeness.  Failing to decide either way is its biggest flaw, and what ultimately made it an experience I have no interest returning to.

Final Fantasy XIII begins slowly.  The early battles - and, frankly, the game is essentially a series of battles and cutscenes, meaning these have to carry the title - are so simple and boring that it's tempting to give up.  It takes hours of gameplay before things open up, before the tactics start to really flesh themselves out.  Once they do, the game suddenly becomes fascinating and engaging, as you have to actually plan for each opponent and adjust on the fly rapidly when fighting, but it takes far too long for this to happen.

The battle mechanic is as follows: you control a single character, but have a party of up to three with you.  You don't control the other characters, but you do assign roles for each character.  Combinations of roles are called "paradigms," and heading into a battle you can select six paradigms to switch between as you fight.  Early on, your paradigm choices are limited because your characters are still weak and can only execute one or two roles each, and your party is often limited to only two members.  The six paradigms, then, are the only six possible.

Later, the game not only expands your party to three, but shortly thereafter gives you the option to compose your party as you wish.  Suddenly the four or five valid options turns into dozens, and its not clear who should be in your party, let alone which paradigms will serve you best.

This, I would say, is the best part of the game.  Once you have access to your whole party (and even with the silly artificial limitation of only using three members at once, even though the whole party is in theory traveling together), the experimentation in battle team composition, equipment, and paradigm usage is a lot of fun.  For a while anyway.

Around the same time you finally end up on Pulse, a real planet below the orbiting world of Cocoon where the game begins.  Pulse has more open gameplay - or at least is better at pretending to be open - and for the first time you can take on side quests away from the main plot.  These side quests, however, are not especially engaging, as they are all in the "move here and kill this" vein.  I completed only a couple before returning to the main plot, at which point I also found an unstoppable battle team and paradigm setup that won me almost every battle for the last 20 hours of the game.

That, above all, was the most disappointing thing.  As my characters became more advanced, it became increasingly clear that there was little need to mix and match.  The specific strengths and weaknesses of my opponents were insufficient to challenge my combination of Fang (physical attack), Vanille (magical healing), and Sazh (magical buffing and attack).  I stomped my way through the ending portions of the game, restarting only a small handful of battles due to defeat.  Most battles were over in a fraction of the target time.

If anything, my biggest critique of Final Fantasy XIII is that it was too user friendly, too easy to dominate.  Sazh's haste spell made my team an unstoppable force, especially combined with how easy it was to boost Fang's strength to twice everyone else on my team.  We attacked quickly and ferociously, and I wondered where the challenge lay.  In many ways, having set up my paradigms for the end game, I simply let the game play itself and watched the cutscenes when they came.

Also disappointing was the end of the story.  Without ruining it, I'll say that I had high hopes for a dark and sinister ending, or at least a major plot twist.  My experience as a Knights of the Old Republic veteran, in particular, had me on guard for sudden surprises, and I fully expected that the Fal'cie (basically deities who run society) who had been manipulating us the whole way would turn out to have really out maneuvered us in the end.  But it wasn't so.  Rather, our final epic battle was against exactly who I thought it would be against, in more or less the way I expected since the midpoint of the game. In a story with so much potential, being so obvious was disappointing.

Overall, Final Fantasy XIII is a well-made game, and a console game.  It lacks the sophistication of PC strategy and top-down rpg titles, and while it does have an engaging combat system, it's also easy to beat that system.  Its greatest strength is its polish, its amazing visuals and audios, and its good story-telling.  Unfortunately, it falls short in far too many areas to be a great game, and must be satisfied rather with being a merely good one.  Which is sad, because the resources and sales that the Final Fantasy series has at its disposal means its capable of so much more.

I've read elsewhere that Final Fantasy XIII is a "failed experiment," that Square Enix is trying to innovate, and that this time they got it wrong.  I think that's not fair, because FF XIII is, in the end, not innovative enough.  It fails, not to deliver on its promise, but rather to set its ambitions high enough.  I hope, come the 14th edition of the game, that Square Enix will reclaim its throne in the console-based RPG world, but it will only do so if it sets its aim higher.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Exploring Research Questions

Having effectively joined the ranks of the unemployed following my resignation as Director of NALU Studies, I have begun not only looking at other jobs - which is lots of fun in the current market - but also looking at PhD programs.  In the case of the former, my range is fairly narrow.  I'm looking, basically, for work with schools that want to do technology integration in their curricula because, after all, that's what I got my Master's in.  In the latter case, the angle is much more obtuse.

Pursuing a PhD is something that makes sense to me, as an avid writer, reader, and thinker.  While the politics of the University world are somewhat abhorrent, the intellectual community is appealing nonetheless, and a doctoral degree hardly means that I'd have to stay in academia if I found it too distasteful.  On the other hand, the real challenge here is not navigating politics or soft money, but rather defining an area of interest sufficiently narrow to ensure finding a fitting advisor and, ultimately, a fruitful dissertation.

For a generalist, however, that is a difficulty that cannot and should not be overlooked.  Part of the appeal, indeed, of the specialized job of instructional technology and curriculum support is that it is, in reality, a generalists job.  I would be the expert on what tools are available for classroom use, and good implementation practices, but I would (at least in theory) have the opportunity to work with teachers of English, history, science, math, music, foreign language, and anything else a given school offers.  In short, I'd be a specialist who nevertheless gets to work across fields, who gets to talk to people who know, between them, know a lot about almost any subject you'd want to know about.  Contrast that with most Universities, where the world is more insular, where conversations don't frequently happen across departments, and you'll see the appeal to a generalist and a learner of being able to span multiple disciplines.

So the challenge, given the fast approaching deadlines of many PhD programs, is defining not only a question, but even an area of study.  Hence this post, which is more for me than my readers, as I try to explore the implications of a few ideas and, hopefully, get some ideas back in return.


One of my first thoughts in my current exploration of graduate programs was, "Why not return to music?"  I do love music, as the title of the blog suggests.  The biggest challenge is that, though I am a marginally competent pianist, I am no expert, certainly not at the level that PhD programs expect.  In the last two years, especially, my practice has been limited, and while I have more or less maintained my skills, I am no better at the piano now than I was as an undergraduate.

Nevertheless, my Senior Thesis at St. John's was a musicology paper, I was an assistant in music courses for three years, and I conducted a chamber orchestra.  I don't think selling a program on my background would be easy, but it would be far from impossible.  Which leaves the bigger issue of what part of music I'd like to study.

Regardless of the field of study I pursue, integrating some of my Stanford LDT knowledge is a no-brainer.  And, ultimately, I'm still passionate about education.  So the angle from which studying music is most appealing is the musical-cognition angle.  That is, how do people learn to understand music?  Perhaps there's a cultural and anthropological bent to that question: how does culture and language effect the learning of music?  How, for example, does classical music differ from jazz harmonically, melodically, and rhythmically, and how would a classical musician describe those differences relative to a jazz musician?  Beneath all of that, how does learning the music from one or the other perspective (and we could throw in many others, from pop music to modern rock to Hindu chants) influence the comprehension of the others?

It seems to me that there are two chief ways to explore those questions.  The first involves neuroscience, studying cognition using brain waves and such.  But that science is still in its infancy, and the more interesting angle (though probably the less fund-able one) is the anthropological one.  The ethnography necessary to do research into any of those questions would be fascinating and enjoyable.

Another angle, here, is strict musicology, but that seems a little bland and self-serving.  At least the above has implications for education, assuming schools ever teach music again, anyway.  On the other hand, musicology could also be a curricular focus.  Is there a way to teach music to students that combines theory, history, and appreciation.  As it is, those are all usually separate classes (as the college level, of course).  Why not make a single class that incorporates all of those?  The question, I guess, is does that effort even belong in a PhD program, or is it more of a professional deal?

Fellow Johnnies will point out that St. John's does indeed combine those three points, which leads to a possible research project: how do students of St. John's music program compare to students who take music classes at other colleges?  But that's a can of worms that leads to a different area of study, as well.


Working towards a PhD in education makes some sense given my Master's in education, and I certainly feel I can ask a more sophisticated and specialized research question in this area than in any other.  Of course, the question I'm most fascinated by brings with it certain challenges: St. John's and research are not always friends.

What I mean is, I'd love to study the differences between a St. John's education, a different liberal arts education, and normal University education, and a parochial education.  I of course know that the curricula and pedagogy are wildly different, and I more or less know in what way and why.  But the question is deeper than that: how do students in those various settings differ?  What is the culture of St. John's compared to Williams College, compared to the University of Michigan, compared to a Community College?  How much of that owes to geography, how much to pedagogy, how much to some other factor?  Of course, the outcome piece is important, too: which graduates are more "successful," and in what ways?

I'm not convinced, however, that St. John's buys the kinds of processes that go into that kind of research project.  I'm not sure I do, either.  Try as they might, even the most objective education researchers usually have an axe to grind, and have biases built mostly (or even exclusively) on their own educational experiences.  "Best practice," in that cynical world view, is "what worked for me."  And, without a doubt, that's the challenge I would face.  St. John's is, to me, one of the best colleges in the country, if not the best.  Could I really overcome that bias and look at it objectively?  Would St. John's even want me to?  Do they care if they are "effective" in any modern, researchable sense?

Which leads me to narrower questions that might be more researchable, and still fit under education.  For example, do students do better working from original source material alone, or do they do better working with secondary sources and interpretations?  This question comes from a conversation I had at Stanford with a Professor there, and it still is fascinating to me.  It captures a piece of St. John's, without a doubt (since Johnnies are discouraged from using secondary sources and interpretations, so much so that we're often asked not even to consider context).  But it also captures high school English, where Hamlet is usually read without any accompanying documents.

The linchpin here is "better."  What exactly constitutes "better?"  Do secondary sources improve comprehension, interpretation, analysis?  Do they improve creativity?  Do they improve the level of conversation in the classroom?  What's more, is there even a good way, pedagogically, to introduce them without being boring?

There are other rich angles here, as well, such as the differences between high school and college level students (which benefits more from secondary source material).  Moreover, we might ask about the cultures of the schools and classrooms involved.  Perhaps a lecture class is much better with secondary sources, but a discussion one is not.  Or maybe it's the other way around?  Who knows?

Needless to say, I could probably generate a good dozen questions that fit under the heading of education, but the underlying theme to all of them is the same: I want to know about the components of a St. John's education, and what makes it work (assuming it does).  Discussion versus lecture is the key here, and that's a cultural question, which leads to a whole other kind of thought.


I have never taken a single anthropology class in my life, though the Alienation and Deprivation in Fiction and Education course at Stanford was close.  I don't know the language, I don't know the research, and I don't know the questions.  Nevertheless, the concepts keep hitting me again and again.  Cultural anthropology is the kind of research I keep coming up with, even if it's in music, or education, or literature, or anything else.

Now there's no question that I am a math person, and I don't know what place math has in anthropological research.  I'm wary of numbers, because too often we let them stand in for real meanings and real people.  That said, mere anecdote does not knowledge make, and so the best bet is to combine the two.  I'm sure that anthropology does this, but I simply don't know enough about it.

So what questions do I even have?  Well, I don't have archaeological questions.  That's not totally true, but I don't want to get a PhD in them.  My questions are more about modern cultures, and especially the Internet.  Ironically, though I do not use Facebook or Twitter, I'm fascinated by the cultural implications of both.  A study of how social networking is effecting people's understanding of self and culture would be extremely interesting to me.  And I'm sure it's already happening.

Anyway, that's just one of many questions in the anthropology world that appeals to me.  Some of the questions from my music and education sections could probably fall under this heading as well.  And that's the rub.  How and where can I bring subjects together?  What school is cross-disciplinary enough, what advisor enough of a generalist to help lead me through not only doing research, but narrowing my focus enough to be effective without gimping my generalist tendencies overmuch?

The truth is, I'm leaving off disciplines, even here.  I've explored Stanford's Modern Thought and Literature program, which runs out of their English department.  I've considered Linguistics.  I won't rule out Neuroscience, even if I'd have a lot of catching up to do.  I'd even consider Statistics!

The trick, to me, is not finding the right field, it's finding the right school and the right advisor, and then breaking the rules.  My academic success has always been built upon stretching the limits of what is acceptable, whether that means turning in a poem instead of an essay (but a poem that is still an essay), or taking courses that don't fit into a degree but using them to inform projects, or purposefully trying to break rubrics.

Which is all well and good once I'm in a structured, academic environment, but I'm smart enough to realize that I need that structured environment, too.  The rebel has to rebel against something.  The innovator is only innovative relative to his surroundings.  Finding a good environment, then, is the real key, and the truth of the matter is, I don't know what I'm looking for.  Or, rather, I know exactly what I'm looking for, but I don't have the slightest clue how to find it.

But maybe that, more than anything else, suggests to me that I'm ready to work towards a doctorate.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Blank Page

This is a poem I wrote in college.  I used to write poetry, poorly.  Looking back, this is the one of the few decent ones.  Far from perfect, but more metrically and structurally intricate than most of what I wrote.  I also still appreciate the sentiment.  I hope you like it, too.

What hope do I have against a blank page?
Line upon empty line that should say so much,
Yet it will not, but once in an age, when the touch
Of true genius resounds.

Foolish me, to spoil boundless hope such,
To try to speak of the profound and the true
When I cannot, no matter the crutch, for to woo
True genius is impossible.

But continue I must, quibbling with the mere hue
Of my words, not the inevitable shortcomings therein,
The forgotten genius that ever imbues nothing I begin,
For I am but a spectator.

A witness to Whitman, transitory and simple tin
To gold.  When Yeats or Donne speaks, I hope to hear,
To read true words and listen, to rejoice in Lear
At tragic beauty alone, but beautiful.

I resign to the Fool, only so I may lack the fear
And shame to stay my hand, so I may pretend the sage,
All the while a simple seer, ever with soul enraged
At passing ink on the once blank page.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Guilty Pleasures, Sports Edition

One of the fascinating things about sports is how uppity they can make people.  It's always, "LeBron James this, Cameron Newton that, F--- those guys!"  I'm guilty of it, too (as in, f--- the Giants).  Nevertheless, I always loved the Onion's classic t-shirt that said, "The sports team from my metropolitan area is superior to the sports team from your metropolitan area."  That just about sums it up, really, as far as fans are concerned.  Add in a dash of George Bernard Shaw's classic line about patriotism,* and you've got it covered.

* "Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it."

With that in mind, I want to talk about three little things that secretly please me in modern sports.  These three things, I think, you will probably hate.  Odds are, if you listen to any sports radio, watch any ESPN, or talk to anyone at the local bar about sports, you're going to be shocked at what I'm about to say.  So here it goes.

1) I'm glad Derek Jeter won the Gold Glove.

Seriously, I am.  I love it.  A healthy part of that love is irony, of course, but I still think it's awesome.  I mean, I'm an advanced statistics nut, and I know in my heart that either Alexei Ramirez or Cliff Pennington actually deserve the award.  But I don't really care.  Going into an off-season where the single biggest mythological figure in modern baseball - the guy fifty years from now everyone will talk about in the way they talk about Joe DiMaggio now - has to sign a new contract with the single biggest mythological team in all of sports, there's something fitting about redeeming a sub-par season with a Gold Glove.

Really, the Gold Glove has been a meaningless award for a long time.  Rafael Palmeiro won one in a year where he played DH some 120 games.  Who cares who wins the Gold Glove?  Derek didn't win it for fielding, he won it for being Derek Jeter, and I respect that.  No, I love that.

2) I'm rooting for the Miami Heat this year.

That's right, the Miami Heat, starring the most hated trio in basketball: LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade.  You know what, though?  I've watched a couple Heat games so far this year - more than I've watched Nuggets games - and just love watching these guys.  Oh, they'll have (already have had) their problems, but it's so much fun to see so much talent on the floor all at once.  The NBA is such a silly league already, so I'm not particularly worried about the Heat "ruining" the game.  On the contrary, I find this experiment - putting three superstars together and seeing what happens - fascinating and engaging.  I want to see it work.  I want to see the Heat win 70 games, and romp all over the Lakers in the NBA Finals.  I don't think that will happen, but wouldn't it be cool if it did?

Now most people will say no to that.  They want the Heat to lose, and lose hard.  They want LeBron to pay for his treachery and his admittedly absurd TV special.  But why?  Why do we have to hate athletes who make bad PR decisions?  Does it really matter?  Are they really role models for our kids (if so, are we really that bad as parents)?  I don't think so.  I, for one, don't watch sports for moral lessons.  Rather, I watch so I can see LeBron throw a perfect pass to Dwayne Wade for an oop from mid-court.  I watch to see a team rise up and win (and win big) even though everyone is booing them.  What better drama is there than that?  And how disappointed would even the most fervent Heat hater be if they failed to make the Finals?  Just like the Yankees World Series win in 2009, sometimes the bad guys have to succeed, because otherwise it's just bland old Lakers versus Celtics every year.

3) I like the BCS.

This is the worst one of all, but it's true.  If Auburn and Oregon meet in the Championship Game this year, I'll watch, and I won't shed a tear for Boise State or Texas Christian.  Don't get me wrong, I think those teams would be deserving foes, and could easily be the best teams in the country.  But the BCS isn't about figuring out who's best, it's about crowning a champion.  The exact same is true of a playoff.  If playoffs were looking for the best team, they'd be run very differently.  Rather, they're looking for a winner, the luckiest team, the team that does the right thing at the right time.

What I like about the BCS is how much more interesting it has made the last few weeks, and how interesting it will make the next few.  In a playoff system, no one would care whether Boise or TCU was 3 or 4.  Sure, there would be intrigue at the cut-off point, but isn't intrigue better at the top anyway?  In a playoff system, too, we often see inferior teams knock off better ones.  Isn't it a truism that the NFC and AFC Championship Games are usually better than the Super Bowl.  Isn't the World Cup Third Place game usually better than the Final?  So why make Oregon play Pittsburgh or Auburn play Virginia Tech?  Why not just cut to the chase?  Why not put everything on the table to start it out?

Moreover, I love the current Bowl system because it makes for fascinating matchups that last a whole month.  Hawaii vs. SMU, for example, would be so cool.  And, with a playoff, so irrelevant.  For all I care, we could get rid of the Championship Game and just do the old-fashioned matchups and end up with shared titles.  To me the point of college football is not who's Champion, but the process of getting there.  To me, the presence of 120 or so teams means that finding a single Champion is an exercise in futility anyway.  To me, the point is what happens on one play, in one game, and as a fan I don't ultimately care if that matchup is Oregon vs. Auburn, TCU vs. Alabama, or Boise vs. LSU.

I know I'm in an extremely small minority, and I readily acknowledge and agree with all of the complaints people have about the BCS.  They're a bunch of money-grubbing bastards, it's true.  But you still watch.  I still watch.  The whole country still watches, and, what's more, you love to complain about it, to speculate, to criticize.

Ultimately, I think all three of these guilty pleasures come down to the same thing.  We love to hate Derek Jeter (except Yankees fans, who love to love him), we love to hate the Heat, and we love to hate the BCS.  It seems to me, though, that the trip from "love to hate" to "love" is a short one.  It's just a matter of perspective, a matter of culture and counter-culture, a matter of seeing the bigger picture.  And hey, once you take a step back, take a deep breath, and think about it a little, you might find that your guilty pleasures are the same as mine.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Parable of the House

Today I've decided to resign as Director of NALU Studies.  The reasons are numerous, but the essence of why I can tell in a story without implicating anyone specifically.  The title, "The Parable of the House," I think is particularly fitting because it says a lot about my own perceptions.  As an astrological Cancer, my home is vitally important to me, and whether I am working in a job, in an academic setting, or even just doing something for fun, it is important to me to have a sense of being at-home.  The following, then, is a story of a home that proved impossible to inhabit.

Once upon a time there was a man who had traveled the world, seen much, studied much, and spoken to countless people.  The man was tremendously interested in houses, but time and again found that the homes he visited were flawed.  They were too gaudy, on the one hand, or too bland on the other.  There were so many overcrowded small houses, and a few very empty large ones.  He had spoken with architects, draftsmen, and carpenters, most of whom acknowledged how wrong things were in the world of building houses, but few - even none - of whom were willing to try to do anything about it.

The man resolved to build his own house.  He found people to help who felt as he did, and set about to build a new kind of house, different and better than the kinds that other people had built before.  It would be small - at least, it would start small, there was ample land nearby for expansion - but it would be his, and it would do right all those things that other people had done wrong.

Unfortunately, his co-builders and he did not get along, focused as they were on parts of the construction process that the man didn't find nearly so important.  Rather than finding a way to divide labor, the man and the two co-builders fought and fought, and eventually decided to go their separate ways.  The house they were building was split, one half loaded onto one of those "oversize load" trucks and driven away, the other staying on the original plot of land.

The man was happy with this arrangement, but he knew how much work he had ahead of him.  He set about mending the pieces of the house that were left, and fixing it up.  He worked tirelessly for months and months, until finally he was satisfied.

After all of the man's work, the house was a beautiful one, and aesthetically the better for the division that had cost the man so much work.  While it was still small, it was clear to people from all over that it was different, more pleasant to live in, more well-constructed than most other houses.  The man was extremely proud of this house, and so he began working on plans to build new rooms, new wings, and perhaps even new copies of the house elsewhere.

The man, however, was asked to help with someone else's project, a giant office building that needed his expert assistance and experience.  The man reluctantly agreed, but only after he had contacted and enlisted the help of a young scholar to take care of the house in his absence.  The scholar, having seen the house when construction was just beginning, was thrilled.  He agreed to maintain and manage the property, and possibly even to make a reality out of some of the man's ideas for expansion.

Alas, shortly after the scholar stepped into the new house, he received news of a storm heading in the direction of the beautiful house.  The house was built in a volatile area, and while the weather had been mostly kind to the builder, the coming storm was stronger than anything the house had seen so far.  In preparation for this storm, the young scholar put aside plans for expansion and decided to make sure that the house would be secure.  His first action was to inspect the foundation.  Or rather, his first action was to try to inspect the foundation.

As the scholar tore through every nook and cranny of the house, he discovered that there was no basement, no crawlspace, no way to check on the supports that held the house to the land on which it was built.  He began asking questions, trying to find a way to make sure the house was solid, only to discover, to his horror, that the house had no foundation at all.  It was a beautiful house, mostly (inhabiting it had turned up some rough patches that needed smoothing other; some mildew stains here, some watermarks on the walls there, and some not ideal painting decisions), but it was a house built without support!

The scholar was appalled, but resolved to do his best none-the-less.  He would find the blueprints, close down a room at a time, and drill down and make foundations if he had to.  Surely the blueprints would say what should have been!  Only, there weren't any blueprints either.  Discovering this, the scholar began to panic.  He searched and found time and again that documents that should have been easy to find did not exist: materials lists, building permits, records of work done by plumbers and electricians, it was all missing.

Meanwhile, the storm drew closer and closer, and its magnitude increased daily.  It had become a veritable hurricane mere days before it was scheduled to arrive at the beautiful house that the old architect had poured so much of his heart and soul into.  The scholar was faced with a choice.  He could try to weather the storm, save the house, maybe even let it get blown away but use the same land to build a copy, or he could leave, knowing the house was likely to collapse.

The scholar thought long and hard about this decision, knowing that he would lose either way.  If the house fell while he was its tenant and maintainer, the blame would fall on him, for few people knew the house had no foundation.  If, on the other hand, he left, he would incur the disappointment of the old architect and his friends, and would seem a quitter.  When the house fell thereafter, no one would know that it had no foundation, and they would point rather to the lack of a tenant in a storm as the reason for the house's demise.

The scholar saw that neither option was a good one, but that the former was the more dangerous.  Better to escape alive and find another house, if necessary in another place, than to be present while the walls and ceiling collapsed onto his head.  He left the house as the storm began to descend, frustrated and sad, but very much happy to be alive.

The moral of the story, my friends, is a simple one.  For ye who build houses, do not forget to build foundations, too.  For ye who rather acquire houses others have built, do not forget to make sure they are what they seem to be before you do.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

New Pitchers and Poets Post

Venture over to Pitchers and Poets for a new post by yours truly!  That is all.