Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mad Meh, Stand Your Ground, and Golf

A Little Language Usage Complaint
I'm not sure how you would define the phrase "Stand Your Ground," but to me it doesn't mean "seek out people who seem threatening, chase them down, confront them, and then shoot them in 'self-defense.'"  But maybe I'm quibbling about nuance...

Oh golf. You're so nice to look at.
What High Definition Was Made For
This past weekend The Colleague was visiting friends in San Francisco, where rather than party it up and lose her purse, as has happened before in that town, she took the time to muse about motherhood and social responsibility, which you can (should) read about here.

But while she was there I had The Shack to myself, and for the first time in several years I sat down and watched a round of golf on television. Now I know most people think watching golf on TV is the equivalent of whatever else they find boring and pointless, but I love it. And in high definition on a big TV? Oh yeah. That's the stuff.

It's also true that golf is just more fun to watch when Tiger Woods is playing. Yeah he's a dick and he screwed his life up pretty massively. I would have been surprised if he didn't. He's really, really fun to watch play. And if we keep watching long enough, he's going to finally snap and murder someone on the course for taking his picture during a backswing. Set your DVR to CBSHD, the Masters is coming up.

Pete Campbell going dark? I'd watch that.
The Colleague and I sat down to watch the first episode of the new Mad Men season. Not live. On DVR. We're not cave people.

I don't know if we just weren't paying as much attention last time the show was on, but since their long hiatus, they seem to have gotten sloppy. Every couple of minutes we would look at each other as if to say, "Did you just see that?" I had a running list of grievances in my head as we watched. An awkward voice dub here, poorly delivered lines there, sloppy editing everywhere. And really lazy writing. Really. Lazy.

The "return" episode was slotted for two hours, so they had about 1:45 to work with. But they didn't need it. There were at least a dozen unnecessary cut scenes or speeches that seemed only to be there to make sure a character had a certain amount of screen time. And nothing happened! In the few opportunities the writers had to create some drama or conflict, they backed off, and the result was that the whole episode just sort of flat-lined its way along. Yawn. The only saving grace for me is that Pete Campbell (played by Vincent Kartheiser) is emerging as the most compelling character on the show. If the writers don't start using his character to give the show its dark edge back, they are missing out on a golden opportunity. Honestly, he's the only character I find interesting on a show that in its first two seasons was full of cool characters. There's hope that Betty (January Jones) will come back (she wasn't in episode one at all) and continue to devolve into insanity. Does anyone else think she is a rather terrible actor? Or is that just me? I digress.

This is season five of the show, and I have a bad feeling about it. My theory is that shows like Mad Men have a good three season window and after that the wheels start coming off. Compare Deadwood (three total seasons) to The Sopranos (six seasons). Deadwood ended before it lost its momentum. The Sopranos beat us about the head and neck with blunt storylines and dream sequences, long lost relatives, and all sorts of crazy shit. Season 4 was questionable. It became unwatchable in season 5.

For the record, I loved Deadwood. The Colleague never liked it. So use that information before you go out and buy the DVD set. Also for the record, the production value of both shows is far and above what we get on Mad Men. Deadwood was downright stunning to watch.

So for Mad Men, when the writers run out of their planned character arcs and start killing people off or bringing in long-lost relatives and whatnot, you will know they are sliding. I expect this season to slide into melodramatic crap. But I'm willing to give it a shot because...well it's Mad Men.

I'm also willing to give it a try because our harshest household critic, The Colleague, made a solid point after we finished watching episode one. After the long hiatus, the writers had to treat this episode much like a pilot, reintroducing characters and story lines, but they also had to skip ahead in time while keeping some continuity with where they left off. No easy task. The Draper kids have grown, history has moved along (which they tried to show with the inclusion of race riots and protests), and characters have matured since we last saw them. So the staff had a big challenge on their hands. I think they messed it up. But time will tell. They have at least one more season of Mad Men cocktail parties to support.

All Toenails Go to Heaven
The only long term injury I suffered at the Chuckanut 50k was one dead toenail on my right foot. Well, that and whatever damage I am doing to my relationships by spending so much damn time running in preparation for my next event...

One Way Winter is Better than Spring
There is no way you can convince me that a "spring beer" is interesting. Winter beers I can get onboard with. Spring beers? What the hell is a spring beer? Most of them are Nut Brown Ales with some sort of catchy name (Red Hook's apparently defunk "Mudslinger" was a decent name for a terrible beer).


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

I Hate This Song! And Other Things, Too.

What is This Drivel?
16 miles into my recent Chuckanut 50k adventure (report forthcoming from Nobody Cares Press) I switched on my trusty iPod so my music could help me forget that I had 15 miles yet to go. A mile later I realized that I hate every song in my library. Help please. I need some new music suggestions. The music doesn't have to be new, but the suggestions do. 

Can We Agree...
That the driver of this truck has some issues?
Yet another eloquent argument from the right.

I just completed my first full time, all online teaching quarter at The Learning Factory. It's an experiment in lowering my stress level and keeping me from going ballistic on a few of my colleagues, and so far, success! It has been three months since my last academic rampage. But this remoteness isn't, to use a phrase that is ever so popular around the cinderblock hallways of TLF, "sustainable" for the long term. I could be wrong, but I think the appetite for online learning is waning, and students seem to be catching on that they pay more for an experience that is usually more limiting and less engaging than face to face classes.

More importantly, when I look into the future using my Obvious Outcomes Glasses, I can see that The Learning Factory and especially the union drones therein are going to start squawking about equity when it comes to online versus face to face learning. But until that happens, weeeeeeeeeee! I'm working from home, baby.

Not having to go to the office on a regular basis takes a lot more discipline and organization than I actually have. I have to have my iPhone remind me on a regular basis that I am supposed to be working, not playing Tropico on the XBOX, which is what I spend most of my time doing these days.

How cool is Tropico? I'll tell you. Super. That's how. But not as cool as this, spotted recently on a Washington State Ferry while commuting to The Boat Yard...

Old School!
Drill Baby Drill?

Both of my readers know that I am no fan of the Grand Ole Party and their conservative (regressive) stances on social issues. And it's no secret that I have little patience for the incredibly simplistic rhetoric that dominates political discourse. Everything gets boiled down to simple dichotomous stances on what are usually incredibly complex issues, which helps no one but lobbyists and politicians.

Today from the Associated Press comes a "Fact Check" that will doubtlessly be ignored or cast aside as the "liberal media" doing the dirty work for the Obama administration...

Headline: More US Drilling Wouldn't Drop Gas Prices

Here's a tickler:

Supporters of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline say it would bring 25 million barrels of oil to the United States a month. That's the same increase in U.S. production that occurred between February and November last year. Monthly gas prices went up a dime a gallon in that time.
The late 1980s and 1990s show exactly how domestic drilling is not related to gas prices.

Duh. Guess what? Most domestic oil is exported as crude oil, not refined in the US. And guess what? Adapting US refining capabilities to process domestic crude (which is different chemically that crude that is currently imported) would be so prohibitively expensive that it is actually cheaper to export our crude and import crude oil to be refined into precious, precious gasoline.

Plus, US production of crude oil can barely scratch the overall world market.

Another tickler:

Unlike natural gas or electricity, the United States alone does not have the power to change the supply-and-demand equation in the world oil market, said Christopher Knittel, a professor of energy economics at MIT. American oil production is about 11 percent of the world's output, so even if the U.S. were to increase its oil production by 50 percent - that is more than drilling in the Arctic, increased public-lands and offshore drilling, and the Canadian pipeline would provide - it would at most cut gas prices by 10 percent.

Of course, if Sudan and South Sudan fall into all-out war and cut off their supply of oil to China, we could all be screwed...But that's in Africa, and we like to pretend Africa doesn't exist outside of Disney movies about funny hyenas, recent Kony-related viral videos excepted.

Monday, March 12, 2012

March Madness. And College Basketball, Too!

The Huskies were a few free throws from the NCAA Tournament.
I'm Filling Out my NIT Bracket Right Now!
Did you know that the Washington Huskies are 3-5 all time in the NIT? I didn't either until today, when the field of 68 was revealed for this year's "amateur" collegiate basketball tournament. The Huskies, despite winning the Pac12 title in the regular season, were left out of the NCAA Tournament. In the week leading up the selection they went from a predicted #8 seed to out of the field based, essentially, on their first-round lost in the Pac12 Tournament. Colorado went on to win the Pac12 post-season title, and the automatic bid, and Cal somehow got an at-large bid despite finishing behind Washington in the regular season. Conventional wisdom is that Washington had to win just one more game to be a lock for the tournament. One game against Oregon State is the difference between a 10 or 11 seed and being out completely?

Now, I'm not enough of a homer that I am blind to the fact that the Huskies aren't very good. They can't hit free throws and they lost a few games they should have won. But there is no way they are worse than all 68 teams in the field. Their exclusion from the field was a combination of national basketball writers who have been putting down the Pac12 all season as "soft" and the NCAA Tournament selection committee making an example of Washington. The message? The regular conference season doesn't matter. Win out of conference, have a hard out of conference schedule, and make a run in the conference post season. This is the first time the regular season Pac10(12) winner has been left out of the tournament in...ever.

Again, I didn't think the Huskies were a tournament team. I like to watch them, and I hoped they would get in because they're the sort of team that could throw together a great game or two and upset a few higher seeds, but they had a chance to force the NCAA to take them, and they blew it.

All that said, the bad taste in my mouth here is the same as the one I get every winter when the BCS bowl games are played. Adding games, consolidating leagues, creating complex ranking systems, and developing playoff systems are all serving one purpose: making money for the leagues, the schools, and the NCAA. And all of that revenue is made on the backs of amateur athletes who are expressly forbidden to make a dime from any of it. And because many of these athletes know it's a scam, and they know their lifespan as an athlete is already precariously short as 19 year old college stars, we may only get a couple more changes to see the likes of Tony Wroten on a college basketball court.

The reason for the Pac12 tournament is to make more television money. And the existence of the Pac12 tournament fundamentally devalues the Pac12 regular season. This is a separate issue from the fact that the Huskies tanked it at the end of the season (and against Marquette earlier in the year, and against South Dakota State, and...).

More on Social Networking
It took me a few years to figure out the point of Twitter. I get it now. I get it in large part because of my iPhone. Twitter makes sense on a smartphone. I'm sitting in a meeting, more bored than during a wedding of someone I barely know, and none of my Words With Friends opponents have played a word in 10 minutes. I open my Twitter app and read little bits of linguistic joy from some of my favorites. In addition to following me (@GregVanBelle), try these Twitter faves:

For Brief Clips of Satirical Genius:
  • @TheOnion
  • @BorowitzReport
  • @SarahKSilverman
For Meaningful Social Media Connections:
  • @HuffingtonPost
  • @CuraOrphanage
  • @TheDailyShow
  •  @CNN
Liquid Money
Some many years ago I wrote something about the fact that printer ink was the most expensive liquid per gallon a general consumer could buy ($8,000 per gallon!, and yet we still have three ink jet printers in our house and we still march obediently to the local Staples to buy more every other month or so.

And we have recently added another unnecessarily expensive liquid to our household. No, not the good scotch I have hidden in a super-secret lock box. No, we have fallen head over heels for our new Keurig single-serving coffee maker.  We are effectively paying about $1.00 per cup of home brewed coffee (which works out, according to some, to about $25 a pound).

We spent about a week rationalizing this purchase and the cost associated with it (it was wasteful to make a whole pot and throw it out...I drink less coffee now than I used to!'s still much cheaper than going down to Starbucks or Tullys!). That's all bullshit, of course. We just like the cool space age machine and the variety of little coffee and tea pods we can buy. And the coffee is actually good.

(2 minute break while I make a second cup of coffee)

Yeah. That's good stuff...cha ching!

50k is 31 miles. No Way Around It.
This Saturday is the Chuckanut 50k. I have the course map on my desk and I stare at it often. I still haven't decided whether to attack this one or not. My Achilles tendons are still fighting me a bit and they kept me from my last long run. I can do the mileage, and I'm not in bad shape otherwise, but I'm worried already about blowing up. Not a good feeling.

So I'm stuck in this spot between the desire to get my first ultra under my shoes and not wanting to have to drop out of the race after it starts.

I've done 31 miles on trails before (last summer's epic 'Round St Helens adventure) but it took me 11 hours. That's my only comparative baseline.

I have no real reason to write this other than to bitch about my first-world problem of having to decide whether to spend a Saturday running around in the forest for recreation.

Stay tuned for more of same.

Friday, March 09, 2012

The Serious and the Ridiculous. And Running, which is Both.

Ultra Delusions
Just under one week from now I am supposed to lace up the shoes and set out for 31+ miles of light exercise in the Chuckanut 50k. I have the mileage and training in for sure (thanks to some serious mileage on the very serious trails in New Zealand) but it's starting to feel like my Achilles Tendons are going to get in the way of this one. My typical self-diagnosis suggests tendonitis, but who knows. One thing is for sure, if my lower legs don't feel better in a week, there will be no 50k for me...

The Learning Factory. Now With More Cogs.
I admit to not always paying complete attention in faculty meetings, so it is partly my fault, but I tried for 45 minutes the other day to remember what the various initiatives and projects are that us Teaching Drones are responsible for this year. Connecting the project to the acronym is great sport. But I couldn't tell you what they all are.

What I do know is that about half of the faculty in my division are "reassigned" from teaching to working on these initiatives, most of which are ostensibly about quality in teaching. How many students are not served by those faculty so they can work on projects to improve teaching and learning for those students who are not being served? Students at the Learning Factory already have about a 75% chance that their teachers will be adjuncts who work for less pay with fewer benefits and with no obligation to consult with students outside of class. Then we take more full time faculty out of the classroom to do administrative work related to initiatives funded with soft money and that require more time out of the classroom for additional training? What? How top heavy can this thing get before it tumbles down into the parking lot?

I am deeply cynical of these things, especially those without a research base behind them, and I still marvel at how much of our teaching jobs have absolutely nothing to do with actually teaching students.

Which is why I wrote this while I as scheduled to serve as academic advisor to drop-in students (only about 25% of whom "dropped in"). The Learning Factory "lets" us cancel classes with our own students to help other students pick which math class they should take next term. What?

Adventures in TeenagerLand
I am not yet to the point of wanting to apologize to my parents for being between the ages of 15-18, but it's getting close.

If It Weren't So Sad, It Would be Hilarious
For the short term, I am really getting a kick out of watching the GOP "hopefuls" drift farther and farther to the right, pandering to a smaller and smaller group of primary voters who are really, really a-scared of that black guy running the country. Then it hits me that these people have about a 50/50 shot of becoming president and I wake up with my passport in my hand and my laptop open to Expedia, looking for cheap flights to Europe.

A Little Something Serious
Not to bring the real world into this fiction I have created, but allow me to use social media to make a comment about social media. (Somewhere in that last sentence is the start of a master's thesis someone will start but never finish.)

As I write this the name Joseph Kony has gone from almost complete western obscurity to household name, thanks to this video on YouTube. Viral status on YouTube is generally reserved for cats who play pianos or white trash girls being thrown from the back of motorcycles. But this time, not only was the video more than 68 seconds long, it was about something that matters.

So the video starts getting linked to Facebook pages and blogs all around the west. My 14 year old niece shared it on her Facebook page, and I guarantee you she had no idea who Kony was before this. The last time America was reminded that Uganda existed was when we all learned that Idi Amin was actually Forrest Whitaker. And even after that film, I doubt most Americas could find Uganda on a map (hint: it's in East Africa). But once something gets traction, there is internet traffic to be had in criticizing it and poking holes in it.

Invisible Children, the organization that produced the 20 minute YouTube video on Kony, deserves scrutiny and attention. Most organizations do. And I strongly believe that non-profits asking for money from the public need to be as open and transparent as possible (which is why I think The Colleague/My Personal Rock Star is doing such great work at Cura). Bloggers and other media outlets have criticized Invisible Children for being overly simple about a complex issue, for their expenditures, for their fundraising, and even for potentially interfering with the mission to capture Kony.

Questions abound. Is Invisible Children over-simplifying the issue? Well, yeah. You can't exactly distill decades of post-colonial chaos into one 30 minute video. Is the portrayal of Kony incomplete and perhaps factually challenge? Probably. Are there flaws? Yes.

But so what? The entire point of the video is to raise awareness. Does it do that? It does. Very well. There are people on Twitter with literally millions of followers who are clicking that link and learning about the Lord's Resistance Army. There are people in the west who are becoming more aware of one of the many issues in sub-Saharan Africa for the first time. How can that be a bad thing? It's complicated, for sure, but we live in the age of social media, and this is an example of how it can be used to educate and mobilize rather than just entertain.