Monthly Archives: April 2014

The pre-apocalypse

My writing group noted that my new story, though a different setting, is also a post-apolcyalypse tale, or at least post-disaster. One colleague included my novel in that theme, even though in my novel things are good, but about to get worse. It’s pre-apocalyptic, she said.
Something in that. My faith is that humanity will persist, but a lot of bad things are going to happen. By the standards of the past they already have. Like my mentor Philip K Dick, I’m less pinpointing details of the great shift, just exploring scenes after upheaval, where people have adapted to far different norms of environment and behavior. I no doubt absorbed this from my family history, for my parents fled war and Soviet occupation, and my own late 20th century life, where we took on huge social changes, and where the rest of the world changed vastly more. I greatly admire writers like Jim Shepard and Harlan Ellison, who change up place and time each story yet keep consistent in their approach and style.
Perhaps I’ll be more sensitive to this strain of pre-apocalyptic. I hope it will give me a way to glide across genre. I would enjoy writing historical.  Continue reading

The future of the university, the bad part

When I posted on this subject a few days ago, I wish I had known this would be Mainstream Media Says College Sucks week. National Public Radio, the New York Times and the Economist have been discussing the ever greater burden of college tuition, the extremely poor guidance colleges give new students about the cost, the mismatch between graduates and the job market. Even the new sitcom Silicon Valley gets its hero his start by having him tell a major tech investor that if he doesn’t get funding, he might have to go back to college.
But no one has a solution, except regulation and future innovation. This avoids the problem. People go to college for different reasons, but most white-collar employers* use college as minimum requirement.
A college degree is not a guarantee of useful professional skills. A math major, a marketing major and an English major may join the same company the day after graduation, but the first two will get work in keeping with their training sooner than the last. I was a young English major looking for work in the recession of 1989, and I didn’t have a thing about me that an employer would want. But I didn’t quite know that until it was too late.  Continue reading

Science blinded by vocabulary

The New York Times Magazine recently had a fascinating article about the quest to establish a scientific basis for bisexuality. It discussed the early work of researcher Michael Bailey, who first used studies of penile inflation while watching both gay and straight porn to conclude that there was no measurable bisexual response.
Among the points raised in the strong objection to this study (objections to which he is listening) was that porn in and of itself is not always arousing to people; one lay-person noted that the ill-used and unhealthy women who often appear in porn are a turn-off to people who care about women as more than just targets.
It’s another reminder (I’ve written about this before) that scientists need to ask better questions, to step back from assumptions and unquestioned terminology. The -sexual in science’s terms for people’s affections sounds precise, but is so reductive as to mislead. Yes we desire certain people, and it is with those people that we are likely to form lasting pairings. But we know that in those pairings are a world of romance, of partnership, of spiritual complementarity.
Yet a professor of psychology who seeks the truth of a sexuality so rare and furtive as to be a Yeti, fifty years after Alfred Kinsey put male attraction on a six-point range, can’t think to do more than check for chubbies. His science was blinded by vocabulary. Continue reading

American, in my genes?

Over the last few years I have begun to wonder how many of our human differences are actually heritable. Specifically: if Americans, both North and South, are and are growing biologically different from the descendants those who didn’t leave their home countries.
It’s not as silly as it might first sound. We’re only beginning to scratch the full complexity of our biochemical nature, and how our nurture affects it — but it is becoming clear to science that what happens to our bodies can affect what a given gene does, from turning it off to changing its products; and, that we can pass on those effects to the bodies we create.
But how far into our individual natures does this heritability go?
Two people, even two siblings, endure the same heartbreaking war or famine, or are ruled by the same invader or dictatorship. One emigrates, the other doesn’t. Why? You can’t say there’s no biochemical component, so you can’t say there’s no genetic one. And if by emigrating, a person continues to live long enough to breed, or eats a vastly improved diet (even to the point of getting fat, with those additional biochemical changes) — and if their children breed with children of people from other regions, who also left their homes? Continue reading

The future of the university

My father recently put money in my son’s college fund. My son has more than a decade before he heads to college, but what a decade that might be.
Already, online educational courses, from primary- and secondary-school initiatives like Khan Academy to university-level work, are not just spreading knowledge irrespective of distance and tuition, but inverting the traditional model. Instead of students attending school lectures and doing homework, the future promises home-viewed lectures, and coaching sessions where instructors help students execute what they learn online.
That the model of university education we’ve used for the last half-millenium will be going through some amazing creative destruction in the next decades seems a sure bet. Schools will merge, downsize, specialize. Some will go out of business. But I think the university, as an institution, has more staying power than many believe.
In the early days of online shopping, new Internet grocery ventures failed while older supermarket chains developed successful delivery systems. In hindsight it’s easy to see why — Continue reading

Hire the quirky!

David Brooks’s recent plea to our nation’s employers struck me deeply, resonating with both my personal history and my professional experience.
Not that I want you to skip the column, but in case you’re pressed, Brooks asks our nation’s employers to seek new hires who are more passionate than perfect, who are singular and irregular not conventionally well-rounded — not only for the health of their own companies, as counter-intuitive as that may seem, but for the health of our nation.
I despair at his reception. The disincentives are too powerful. No one who vets resumes is encouraged to seek the quirky; and if the quirky fail, few will question how the institution might have helped them succeed — blame is faster and easier. And, let’s admit, many jobs have nothing in them that appeals to restless creative intellects, save payment and the promise of something “down the road” — and are usually managed by people who themselves found that promise to be a mirage.
But still, it might happen. I share a professional anecdote, adding my small breath of wind to Brooks’s great sails.
In 1999, AOL’s Hong Kong office could not manage to find a graphic designer, and it was affecting our production schedule. When we finally confronted the HR people, face to face (a lesson in itself, about the limits of email), they explained there was a policy that everyone hired as the head of a department had to have several years’ experience.  Continue reading

A note on Aronofsky’s Noah (which I have not yet seen)

I have yet to see Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, and honestly I will probably wait for it to come to my living room — not that I wouldn’t love to see it larger, but we parents only get so many nights out. But I have seen all Aronofsky’s other movies and enjoyed them, maddening though they sometimes are. I think he is a fine and adventurous filmmaker, and I am also glad to see a Biblical movie with drama, instead of the plodding pace and dull visuals of a dramatic re-enactment from a true-crime show. I’m looking forward to it.
Alas, Noah is clearly pundit-bait, a chance for people to flog their dead horses again. The simple fact of the source material made Bill Maher’s mind up for him — a close-mindedness that disappoints me, since I can’t see him complaining about a film of the Odyssey replete with similar creatures and witches. Meanwhile, right-wing commentators like Glenn Beck don’t much care for a vegetarian Noah in the mold of Abel – but those who say Aronofsky’s vision is less faithful than Cecil B. DeMille’s might reread their Bibles.
Since everyone has their own soapbox, let me spend a brief moment on mine: just to ask Aronofsky’s, or anyone’s, audience to engage works of art on their own terms, to seek not an exact retelling or to have a bias confirmed, but for the chance to be surprised.
Of course, one might be disappointed, even angry. But it’s easier not to be, if one goes in with an open mind, instead of a checklist.