Tuesday, April 28, 2015

On Going Home Again

My earliest memories date to, I think, 1955, and those are scattershot. This is in keeping with research showing that that adults remember little from before age 3 and nothing (or virtually nothing) from before age 2.  If you think you remember something earlier than that, you are probably wrong. Far more likely it is a manufactured memory, something common enough even when adults try to recall recent events, which is one reason why eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable.  People regularly “remember” things that didn’t happen or that happened differently than they believe. That’s not to say it is altogether impossible to have an earlier memory. My sister always insisted she could remember her first birthday. Perhaps she did. But one would not be unreasonable to suspect it might have been the second, maybe the third. The reasons for so-called “childhood amnesia” are fundamentally biological, not psychological; the growth and development of the brain in first few years physically alters the way long-term memories are stored and retrieved, and this causes early ones to be lost.

Young children (4-7) commonly do retain some very early memories, but they lose them as they age; by age 10, like adults, they have lost pretty much everything before age 3 or even 4. After 10 the loss stops – or, at least, the rate of  loss after 10 is no greater than for more recent memories. Dr. Carole Peterson and her associates at Memorial University of Newfoundland asked 4 to 10-year-olds about their earliest memories; she re-interviewed the same kids after two years. (She also double-checked with parents to be sure the memories from the first interviews were real.) The kids continuously lost preschool memories up to age 10. Peterson told WebMD, “Even when we repeated what they had told us two years before, many of the younger children would tell us that it didn’t happen to them.” Again, the basic reasons are biological, but, as ever in matters involving the mind, environmental influences cannot be discounted entirely; variations in personal experiences can affect how far back one remembers, but not by very much.

Many of my own memories from 1955 and from the next four years were formed at my parents’ house of the time on Woodcrest Road in Whippany NJ. They had built it for themselves in 1949, two years after they married. It was on an oversized partly wooded lot at the end of what in those days still was called a “dead end street” instead of the currently favored “cul-de-sac” or “no exit.” (“No exit” frankly strikes me as scarier – I’ve read the Sartre play.) The 1950s were the height of the Baby Boom, so the street abounded with children ranging from few years older to a few years younger than myself. We all roamed to and around each other’s homes and yards with an absence of parental supervision that today probably would lead to intervention by social services – possibly to arrests. It is possible, though, that the absence was more apparent than real. Example: Starting in kindergarten, my sister instructed my mom not to accompany her (or, later, us) to the intersection with Troy Hills Road to wait for the school bus in the morning with the other kids who also walked there sans parents. “You don’t come!” were Sharon’s exact words. So, she didn’t. However, my mother told me years later that all along the street the adults monitored our progress to the bus stop from their windows and kept the phone handy.

My family moved into another house in another town in 1959. So, since 1959 there hasn’t been a lot of reason to revisit Woodcrest Road, and I haven’t much. According to maps.google.com, Woodcrest Road is only 19 miles and 32 minutes from my current home. Frequently, for any number of reasons, I am a mere 4 or 5 minutes away on Route 10. Yet, decades passed between the last time I visited Woodcrest and last Saturday. Last Saturday I was in Morristown, which is about midway, when the notion to go see the old place seemed suddenly like a good idea. About fifteen minutes later I turned into Woodcrest. It still felt very familiar despite the intervening years; I could remember walking along it to and from the bus stop. I knew where the topsoil pile had been where the Woodcrest kids played King of the Hill. I knew where the climbing tree had been. The climbing tree was an oak with branches perfectly spaced for clambering kids. (As an example of reconfigured memory, my recollection of a very real fall out of that tree is not from the perspective of my own eyes but from some disembodied perspective higher up in the tree.) I remembered playing in the basement recreation room of our home and putting toy cars on the record player turntable so they would go around when I turned it on.

The climbing tree is gone and the street is no longer a dead end, or even a cul-de-sac; the street has been extended to connect with another road. The house is sort-of there; it has been subsumed into a much larger two-story home. I stopped for a moment, smiled, turned the car around and drove home – my current home. I’m glad I made the visit, though I’m at a loss to explain exactly why. There was no intense emotion attached to it, just a mild nostalgia and sense of reconnection. Yet, it was somehow satisfying. It also was enough. I don’t think I need to go back again. At least it was only 19 miles away. I have a photo of one of my grandparents standing in 1963 at a childhood home outside Bratislava for what I presume was the same reason. That revisit took more than 32 minutes.

1949: My parents working on their home on Woodcrest

The house as I remember it

Sharon and I sitting on the porch at Halloween. I don't remember this.


Beach Boys – Back Home

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Autograph Hound



The future arrived in the 1970s: not yet in handheld computing/communications but socially. The cultural revolution that that finally succeeded (philosophically at least) in the US and elsewhere in the 60s was running freely in the 70s – it actually backtracked somewhat in the 80s. The shift in standards left many people dazed and confused (to borrow a phrase from the movie and the Led Zeppelin song). The off-beat soap “Mary Hartman Mary Hartman” chronicling one woman’s course to a nervous breakdown (on the air on The David Susskind Show) is about as good a portrait of the era as any. Yet it isn’t stuck in the 70s; the issues Mary faces with regard to sex, work, marriage, drugs, and so on are the very ones with which we still grapple today. The list of what is and isn’t politically correct is unchanged since then, as are the objections to that list. Despite the big hair and funny clothes, the show feels contemporary.

Louise Lasser was perfectly cast in the title role. Also, I’ve always liked the quirkiness she brings to all her TV and movie roles. She is nearby my home this weekend at the Chiller Theater convention (I suppose the movie Frankenhooker would be the “chiller” connection), so naturally I stopped by to say hello. I mentioned that my favorite break-up scene in comedy is the one with her and Woody Allen in Bananas. She told me that it was mostly unscripted – the script called for a break-up fight – but the impromptu dialogue worked. Good to know. Most of us can relate to that scene. “I can’t receive either,” I said.

Ann-Margret is at the convention, too, but therein lies another tale.

Bananas (1971) – Break-up

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Binge Twinge

Binge-watching has been getting some press lately, and no wonder. It is the new way of viewing TV series and movie series. Binge-watching is defined as watching more than two episodes of the same show or more than two movies of the same series at one sitting. In part we do it simply because it is possible. In the old days the opportunity was limited to special events such as Twilight Zone broadcast marathons on New Year’s Day. Even after the advent of tapes and DVDs, collections were pricey while rentals were inconvenient, so few of us bothered with more than the occasional binge – typically something like the first three Star Wars movies. All that changed with inexpensive video-on-demand, a plethora of storage methods, and an abundance of series that are good, addicting, or both. Netflix deliberately releases entire seasons (e.g. House of Cards) at once, both feeding and exploiting our tendency to binge.

Binging has changed the nature of TV scripts. Traditionally there was tension between producers and writers. Producers preferred each episode to be completely self-contained so that a new viewer wouldn’t be confused (and dissuaded) by finding himself in the middle of a storyline about which he knows nothing. Writers, by contrast, preferred ongoing storylines because they are easier to write and because they offer a better opportunity to develop complex characters, plots, and themes. Some shows, especially sitcoms, still are largely self-contained, but increasingly the writers are having their way. Story arcs continue through several episodes, or even through an entire series. It is easy enough for a new viewer to start at the beginning of a series at any time, so complex ongoing plots are now an asset. They make a viewer wonder what comes next.

Why do we binge-watch? Probably for the same reason we binge on anything else. It is a temporary distraction from the harshness of the real world. As distractions go, this one is relatively benign. It less harmful than binging on vodka, donuts, or OxyContin. True, it is not without drawbacks. Binge-watches cost time, but so long as we schedule them so that we don’t forgo the important things in life in favor of the fantasy on screen, we’re probably good.

According to a TiVo survey, the five most binge-watched series are Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and Downton Abbey. One needs to take this with a grain of salt. People notoriously posture on surveys, pretending to drink less (liquor taxes collect more than double what they ought if people were telling the truth) and to favor higher culture than they do. One fairly might suspect that they are more likely to admit to a binge of Downton Abbey than to Arrested Development, Family Guy, or one of the shows with vampires. Nonetheless, those five do have dedicated followings.

What were my own binges in the past year? While there were occasions when I saw more than two movies at one sitting (usually on a sleepless night) the selections weren’t thematic for more than two, so on a technicality they missed the definition of a binge. TV shows were another matter. I met the definition with them. My choices weren’t especially highbrow, except possibly I, Claudius, if that counts. In the past year they have included Battlestar Galactica, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., Star Trek (original series), Roswell, Xena, The Addams Family (TV series), Mary Hartman Mary Hartman (yes really), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Strangely enough, popular as this series was, Buffy was new to me. I was aware of the show, of course, when it first aired 1997-2003 and had liked (modestly) the 1992 movie that inspired it, but those particular six years were tumultuous for me; new TV shows were the least of what was on my radar. Mary Hartman Mary Hartman, tracking as it does the title character’s course to a nervous breakdown (on the air on a talk show), was the most addictive of the bunch, yet, at the same time, the least appealing on an episode by episode basis since not a lot happens in any one.

Most of us  probably feel a twinge of guilt about all those hours spent this way, but we all need a few guilty pleasures. Once again, it depends on the alternative; if the alternative is Jim Beam, Buffy is a better bet.

What It's Like To Binge

Marilyn Manson- Third Day of a Seven Day Binge

Saturday, April 18, 2015

That Has Such People in't

It’s been almost 90 years since Maria the robot fired the lust of Metropolitans with her exotic dance in Metropolis (1927). Sexy robots in the movies have been at it ever since. Not all of them are female, e.g. Ulysses in Making Mr. Right (1987) and Gigolo Joe in AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001), but most of them are, which is not surprising given the preponderance of young men among scifi screenwriters. Ex Machina, currently in theaters, is an especially stylish example. I’ll leave a fuller review for another time, but today will note one aspect of the film. The protagonist in the movie is hired to run a Turing test for consciousness on the AI robot Ava. The builder considers the test a success because Ava, in his view, is faking her affection just like a real person. This cynical take on romance is very much in line with the times. Even Disney has lost heart, as Sleeping Beauty in Maleficent snores on despite Prince Phillip’s kiss.

Romantic cynicism has become mainstream in recent years, but adumbrations were evident long ago. There always have been cynics, of course. La Rochefoucauld: “True love is like ghosts, which everybody talks about but few have seen.” Or, for that matter, Diogenes who, when asked whether or not it was wise to marry, said, “Whatever you do you will regret it.” But 20th century intellectuals took it to another level, and laid the foundations for making it fashionable. Freud thought love and, for that matter, civilization were sublimations of the libido. His wayward disciple Wilhelm Reich thought repressive societies could be freed by sexual liberation. Aldous Huxley turned both ideas on their heads. In his 1932 novel Brave New World he postulated that shallow sensual pleasures including drugs and casual sex were ideal tools of totalitarian control.  (Nearly everyone in the English-speaking world is assigned this book in high school, but it is worth a re-read.)

Huxley’s future citizens of the world are hedonists. They are deliberately conditioned to be so, and consequently are much too superficially happy to cause any trouble to the folks in charge. To form a serious romantic attachment is to engage in aberrant anti-social behavior; it will get the perpetrator exiled to an island where he or she can’t disturb decent people. Reproduction, completely divorced from sex, is solely in vitro in state laboratories while child-rearing is the responsibility of state conditioning centers, thereby eliminating another type of intense emotional entanglement (parent-child). All intense emotions and passions are impediments to well-adjusted hedonism. The World Controllers exercise their world control by making people blandly happy with drugs (soma), hook-ups, and consumerism.

There is a passage in the book where the Savage, who was raised without proper conditioning on a New Mexico reservation, recites Shakespeare in order to show his civilized friends a deeper way of thinking and living. The results were not as he anticipated:

"Is there no pity sitting in the clouds,
That sees into the bottom of my grief?
 
O sweet my mother, cast me not away:
Delay this marriage for a month, a week;
Or, if you do not, make the bridal bed
In that dim monument where Tybalt lies... "

when Juliet said this, Helmholtz broke out in an explosion of uncontrollable guffawing.

The mother and father (grotesque obscenity) forcing the daughter to have some one she didn't want! And the idiotic girl not saying that she was having some one else whom (for the moment, at any rate) she preferred! In its smutty absurdity the situation was irresistibly comical...

He shook his head. "You can't expect me to keep a straight face about fathers and mothers. And who's going to get excited about a boy having a girl or not having her?" (The Savage winced; but Helmholtz, who was staring pensively at the floor, saw nothing.) "No." he concluded, with a sigh, "it won't do."

Huxley has had some success as prophet. There are more than few signs that we are trending his way, and fashionable romantic cynicism is one of them. We haven’t arrived at his utopia/dystopia yet. We haven’t surrendered the making of children to the state for one thing, though we do give it a greater role in raising them than in 1932; more of us than ever forgo having kids at all. Nor are there formal world controllers. There is, however, in much of the world, a power elite in government and the economy with a strongly (not exclusively, but strongly) hereditary element; there remains a degree of mobility into and out of its ranks, but this is the case even in Brave New World, in which heredity is, in any case, a matter of bioengineering. Arguably this elite could evolve into the sort of authority that some conspiracy theorists long have insisted already exists.

In his 1958 commentary Brave New World Revisited Huxley wrote about the evolution of this new order:

“…the quaint old forms — elections, parliaments, Supreme Courts and all the rest — will remain. The underlying substance will be a new kind of non-violent totalitarianism. All the traditional names, all the hallowed slogans will remain exactly what they were in the good old days. Democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial — but Democracy and freedom in a strictly Pickwickian sense. Meanwhile the ruling oligarchy and its highly trained elite of soldiers, policemen, thought-manufacturers and mind-manipulators will quietly run the show as they see fit.”

In truth, there are parts of the world that would benefit from a little more bland hedonism, but so far the oligarchy isn’t doing a very good job of establishing the proper conditions for it in the West, never mind elsewhere. Well, give it time. After all, Brave New World is set in the seventh century After Ford, and we are merely in the second.

All this may be a lot of baggage to load onto one cinematic robot who cynically flirts to get what she wants. Also, Ava is something unanticipated by Huxley. Clones abound in his novel (they are the bulk of the population), but artificial intelligences do not. If any such machines ever do attain consciousness, perhaps they will be more reluctant to surrender their freedom for the good life than we biologicals.


Donovan – Brave New World


Sunday, April 12, 2015

But the Petunias Look Nice

Author Bill Bryson writes prolifically on everything from household objects to language; he also writes idiosyncratic travelogues. I’ve never regretted picking up a book by him, so I had high hopes for The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America. Bryson grew up in Iowa in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but long has made his home in the UK; so, for this adventure he was coming home but with an acquired outside perspective. It was a promising combination. Starting in his hometown of Des Moines, he drove a circuit around the US in search of the perfect small town of TV and movies. (I could have told him the only place this exists: Main Street in Disneyland, and it isn’t real.) He didn’t avoid the big cities completely – it would have been silly to shun a city when it was between where he was and where he intended to go – but his objective was small town America. Despite the passage of time since publication, in fundamental respects nothing much has changed about his way-stops.

To anyone who hasn’t tried a road trip around the US, I recommend it; it takes a few months to do it halfway properly, but you probably can cut this to one if you don’t mind pausing at each stop only long enough to snap a photo. I did this the first time as long ago as 1975. (See The Roxy Caution at my Richard’s Mirror site for a brief account of one stop on that journey.) Do it once and the road always will beckon.

The problem with Bryson’s book is not the outside perspective but the “coming home” part. One always feels free to be ruder about oneself and one’s countrymen than about others, and that is as it should be. And yet… By analogy, we all complain sometimes about our family foibles (or possibly even crimes), and such stories often make for funny conversation, but there is a point beyond which the complaints get off-putting to the listener. You know how some folks will carry on about the mean sister, the unfeeling mother, the crazy father, the passive aggressive brother, and so on so relentlessly that you begin to feel embarrassed for the gripers? OK, Aunt Bessie has thirteen cats and Uncle Fred is a sneak drinker, but is there nothing more to them? If there is, we never hear of it. It took only a few chapters of The Lost Continent for that kind of embarrassment to kick in. Mind you, I don’t take offense to his commentary in some touchy patriotic way. I’ve said worse things about all the places he mentions – albeit not in a cascade  one right after the other – and I would be just as uncomfortable with his tone (maybe more so) if he were writing about Romania. And yet… is there nothing more to those places?

Examples—

Regarding Iowa girls:
“Iowa women are almost always sensationally overweight…I don’t know what it is that happens to them but it must be awful to marry one of those nubile cuties knowing that there is a time bomb ticking away in her that will at some unknown date make her bloat out into something huge and grotesque, presumably all of a sudden and without much notice, like a self-inflating raft from which the pin has been yanked.”

On Ohio:
“In the morning I awoke early and experienced that sinking sensation that overcomes you when you first open your eyes and realize that instead of a normal day ahead of you, with its scatterings of simple gratifications, you are going to have a day without even the tiniest of pleasures; you are going to drive across Ohio.”

Making fun of Southern accents:
“‘Yew honestly a breast menu, honey?’...She might as well have addressed me in Dutch. It took many moments and much gesturing with a knife and fork to establish that what she had said to me was, ‘Do you want to see a breakfast menu, honey?’”

On Utah and Mormons:
“It makes you feel a little like Kevin McCarthy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers…”

On Nevada:
“What’s the difference between Nevada and a toilet? Answer: You can flush a toilet.”

On Los Angeles:
“I think it is only right that crazy people should have their own city, but I can’t for the life of me see why a sane person would want to go there.”

You get the idea. Funny? Yes. At least a kernel of truth? Yes. And, yet…

By the time he completes his 13,978 mile circuit, however, he mellows. He hasn’t found that perfect small town but he has found pieces of it scattered here and there. Sounding a curiously sentimental note after all that went before, he writes about his re-entry into Des Moines,

“There was just something about it that looked friendly and decent and nice. I could live here, I thought, and turned the car for home. It was the strangest thing, but for the first time in a long time I felt almost serene.”

The Lost Continent is worth a read despite the sighs it provokes. Bryson writes very well, he has a good eye, and his grouchiness can be amusing. But he has reminded me to keep my own carping in check – or at least to balance those complaints about Bessie’s thirteen cats with an observation that her petunias look nice.


Me and You and a Dog Named Boo
 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Recap: Corporal Punishers vs Brandywine Roller Girls

On Saturday April 11, Morristown’s original roller derby team, the Corporal Punishers of the Jerzey Derby Brigade, faced off against the Brandywine Roller Girls, visiting from Chester County Pennsylvania. The Corporal Punishers had lost some key skaters to other teams and other towns in recent years, but they proved fully up to speed in a very competitive bout.

In the initial jam Apocelyse put the first points of the bout on the board for the Punishers. Ultra-Shear-her returned the favor for Brandywine in the next. It set the pattern for most of the first half as the lead see-sawed from one team to the next. At 10 minutes into the bout the Punishers led 26-25. 10 minutes later the score stood at 42-49 in favor of Brandywine. It was then that Brandywine opened a significant point gap thanks to fortuitous penalties and skillful power jams, particularly one by Ultra-Shear-her. At half-time the Punishers trailed 65-102.

In derby, 37 points is not a safe lead, and as the second half began the Punishers strove to take it away from Brandywine. Apocelyse, LL Kill J, CaliforniKate, and Pretty Kayotic all fought their way through stiff Brandywine blocking. Drop Pop N Lock and Jacquelyn Heat did as much for Brandywine but Morristown narrowed the gap to 109-122 with 15 minutes remaining. Blocking on both sides toughened further, with both teams repeatedly setting up effective walls. There were more than a few pile-ups as jammers and blockers collided. Jacquelyn Heat, however, was able to reopen Brandywine’s lead with multiple laps. Morristown kept skating gamely, even knocking down Ultra-Shear-her in the final jam, but the Punishers ran out of time. Brandywine took the win with a final score 126-164.

MVPs:
For Brandywine – Kelly Krueger as blocker, Ultra-Shear-her as jammer
For Corporal Punishers – Lil Mo Peep as blocker, Apocelyse as jammer


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Sapient


Histories come in different flavors in accord with the tastes of their authors. Some are detailed chronologies of events while others gossip about the private lives of key actors. Still others concern themselves with grand themes and broad analyses; any book titled Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind scarcely can be anything but one of the last type. Published in 2014,Yuval Noah Harari’s book begins when at least six species of humans co-existed on earth, discusses factors that may have led to the emergence of a sole survivor (Homo Sapiens), provides a global overview of prehistory and history, and ends with speculations about whether future bioengineering (or just plain engineering) will lead to our replacement by a new species of human, transhuman, or nonhuman. That’s a lot of territory to trek in 428 pages counting footnotes, but Harari still pauses here and there long enough to make some interesting arguments. Even the ones with which I disagree are valuable as thoughts to ponder.

Two themes in particular run through the book. First, Harari argues that the critical difference between Sapiens and other humans, including the equally big brained Neanderthals, was the ability to form social networks larger than 150 individuals. 150 is the limit below which modern people are able to maintain easy familiarity; above a group size of 150 we begin to lose track of names and relationships, which is to say that we can regard some of the members as strangers. There is no evidence any hominid other than Sapiens ever formed larger groups. Sapiens hunter-gatherer bands tend to split once they reach this size, but Sapiens did find a way to achieve larger associations. Harari credits a cognitive revolution by which Sapiens was able to create social fictions and believe in them: common origin stories, common mythologies, common religions, and the like allowed people to expand the definition of “us” to form tribes, alliances, and trading networks. These allowed us to accept commonality and kinship with people we didn't know personally. This was a killer app against a more fractured “them.” Such fictions continue to underlie modern societies. The fictions can be purely ideological; Harari cites the classical liberal idea of natural human rights and the socialist idea of human equality as examples. Just because an idea is fiction doesn’t mean it isn’t useful. Quite the contrary. But, he argues, it still is fiction. Money is a shared fiction; money is valuable only because people believe it is; when they cease to believe it (and this happens with some frequency) a currency will crash. Nations, too, are fictions that exist by consensual belief.

His second argument is that determinist theories of history are pleasing but wrong. Random events and the whims of individuals can have vast long-term consequences: “the better you know a particular historical period, the harder it becomes to explain why things happened one way and not another.” Humankind, he says, forms a second order chaotic system. A first order chaotic system is one that is not affected by predictions – e.g. the weather. A second order chaotic system is one in which predictions change the outcome; a respected investment firm that makes a prediction about a commodity price, for example, will affect the price by that very prediction. So, whatever current trends might seem to be, things easily can take unexpected turns. In the 1990s, for example, many folks argued the world was moving inexorably toward secular capitalist liberal democracy (remember “the end of history”?); nowadays that looks doubtful.

That human myths are flexible and arbitrary is not a new idea. Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil and elsewhere remarked that prevailing ethical systems have no inherent truth but were invented to keep the current elite in power, while rival ethical systems are invented by those who want to transfer power from the current elite to themselves. (This simple and, in retrospect, obvious argument unsettled my ideological confidence when I was young.) Myths nonetheless are enormously effective tools for social organization, and Harari may be onto something when he points to Sapiens’ capacity for them rather than just to a capacity for language per se (of the practical “a lion is over there” variety), which we possibly shared with other human species, as a key advantage. As for his second major point, anyone who has invested in stocks in the past two decades is familiar with chaotic systems.

Harari doesn’t convince in every chapter and even some of his “facts” are debatable, but his book is an intriguing read. Besides, anything that can prod folks to question their own mythological certainties in our world of clashing true-believers is welcome. Recommended.


pity this busy monster, manunkind - e.e. cummings

 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Degrees & Dollars

My old college alma mater once again has sent a mailer informing me of an opportunity to send a donation. Once again I’ll forgo the opportunity. I appreciate my experiences there, but I paid for them once and will leave it at that.

My years at GWU in truth were rewarding ones. Not financially. It just so happened that that my subsequent work required no degree and was utterly unrelated to anything I had encountered in college. But college did offer something: it pointed out to me just how much I didn’t know about how many things. My classes provided modest amounts of information about this subject and that, of course, but far more importantly they provided a framework for learning more on my own should I be so inclined. Without such a framework, it is difficult to know where to start. That has been of lifelong value. For this reason alone I recommend the experience to anyone who can afford it. For most people who attended college at that time (I was an outlier) the degree was financially valuable too, at least in the long run. A degree – almost any degree – from that era has been associated with higher lifetime earnings. Besides, college years were fun in other ways.

Most people enjoy their college years, of course, often primarily for reasons less associated with academics than just with being in their late teens and early 20s. A line from Gregg Araki’s cult scifi/college film: “College is just an intermission between high school and the rest of your life – four years of having sex, making stupid mistakes, and experiencing stuff.” For many this apparently is all there is to it. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses describes a look at 3000 students on 29 American campuses – a large sample. Among the findings: after two years 45% of the students were no more knowledgeable or capable of critical thinking than when they graduated high school; even after a full four years 36% showed no improvement over high school. The students in the survey studied only half as much as students four decades earlier though somehow they maintained an average overall grade-point average of 3.2. Professor Arum of NYU, lead author, calls the numbers “kind of shocking.” There has been one noteworthy increase: cost. Tuition in inflation-adjusted dollars has doubled since the 70s – in some cases much more than doubled. So have associated costs such as board and books. Accordingly, the net financial rewards to a degree have become less certain. Degrees in engineering and the hard sciences still pay off, even with higher student debt, but a liberal arts degree (like mine) is far more problematical, with unemployment rates among graduates double that of the science majors. A recent Brookings Institution report notes the importance of distinguishing among degree types when asking “Is college worth it?” (Their answer: overall yes, but in some categories not necessarily.)

Do I have any advice for anyone college-bound who does not plan to pursue a hard science? Yes. Don’t go to college for the money, because there might not be any. There might be less. Do it to try to become a better rounded person. If that outcome doesn’t seem probable or, if achieved, an adequate return on the investment, maybe one should drop the idea and look in the want-ads instead.


Even though they were during the last bloom of hippiedom and psychedelia, my college years were a bit less weird than this. Kaboom (2010) trailer: