Yoknapatawpha Crossing

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Age

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Before there were interstates, Kingston Pike was not a heavily trafficked road. Nonetheless, it is a well-known fact that the pike was a favorite choice of bootleggers running moonshine through Tennessee, so clearly, the road has always gone from here to there, even though the route, once upon a time, wasn’t anywhere in particular. Nowadays, Kingston Pike is one of the major roads through Knoxville, TN, because once interstates were invented, Knoxville was made a crossroads: history imploded, traffic exploded, and stores chased cars.

When I was growing up, there was frequently a need for driving through Knoxville on Kingston Pike, because all the stores were in Knoxville. Driving through the outskirts of west Knoxville would invariably prompt my dad to tell us about how he could remember, a passing twenty years ago, how everything we were looking at had been undeveloped farmland, and how unbelievable all this new development was. It was like a mantra, and eventually we all learned to grin good-naturedly. We know, Dad. Things change.

I was home for Christmas, and one night (not Christmas Eve) I was driving over to Knoxville (because in addition to the stores, it also has all the bars). Generally, my approach was to get off Pellissippi Parkway at Hardin Valley, which is the super-secret back way into west Knoxville, not so much as a shortcut, but as an excuse to get off the well-travelled roads and drive through some undeveloped farmland.

Since time immemorial, there had been a lonely gas station at the Hardin Valley exit, but as I exited that evening I saw something that (now, in retrospect, after being foreshadowed) shouldn’t have been surprising at all. A grid work of pressed steel was rising from the hillside, a metallic outline, waiting to be hung with drop-tile, insulation, wires, glass, and concrete. It was nearly finished then, and even at a Tennessean construction pace it’s probably almost finished now.

When I was in middle school, I had a crush on a girl. Of course she was beautiful, but she was also spunky, and now, now myopically molding my middle-school morals, I can easily claim that it was the spunk, not the beauty, that I wanted. Last year at a party I saw her, face covered in a plastic mask of rouge and eyeliner, wearing a blouse with a slash from neck to navel, an almost-skirt, and a Solo cup of Natty Light. Later in the night she was vomiting spunk in the bathroom with the door open.

Several years ago, I read a set of fantastic novels. They were imaginative, entertaining, epic, and perfectly constructed. In the author’s later work I found much to enjoy, but nothing to compare to his first effort. I’ve been afraid to read them again, fearful that I would find fault. Instead, they live on in my memory, immutable, the best scenes echoing, sparking endlessly between my synapses, colors and words perfectly reconstructing in loops.

All my life, creepingly, ducking my consciousness, things have been changing, and like someone living in a strobe-lit world light occasionally impinges upon my eyes. I see, and am surprised.

What I want, the way the world should absolutely work, is for everything to be the way I remember it, and eventually young people will laugh at me good-naturedly for feeling this way, while my memory grows more perfect and brilliant.

Written by Daniel Grady

February 14, 2008 at 23:39

Posted in Rants, True Stories

I am Pissed Off

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for two reasons.

One

I’ve heard tell that the Government is going to send me a check for $600, an economic incentive. That sounded awesome, but then I realized that everyone else is getting the same deal, so it was just sort of ho-hum. Then I realized that everyone else is getting the same deal, and I thought about it for a second.

This is really the best the government can do with our money? Give it away? They can’t think of any other damn thing to invest that money in? The best they’ve got is to tax us, then realize they taxed us too much, then throw fistfuls of our money indiscriminately into the country? Maybe they should take that money and hire me to tell them how to spend their money, because without even goddamn trying, I can think of no less than five things it would be better invested in, all of which involve giving Americans better educations. Of course, by instead investing the economic incentive money in public schools, they would have undone the keystone on which this whole plan rests, to whit: the assumption that most people will blow their wad. They are banking (ha! Double ha!) on the fact that the aggregate American is an idiot who will piss away their money in an instant instead of paying off their debt. They’re probably right, but it’s still pretty insulting, isn’t it? AAARRRRGGGHHH!!!!

Two

An email showed up in my inbox yesterday from Gene R. Nichol, who is the President of the College of William & Mary, the oldest chartered university in the nation and my alma mater. The email said, basically, that he had been fired by the Board of Visitors, and the implication was that this was for ideological reasons. Two hours later, here’s an email from the Board of Visitors that says, “That’s not true, we’re firing him, but not for those reasons, no no no.”

What are the reasons?

“Not the ones he claims.”

I don’t know the details, maybe they’re firing Nichol for legitimate reasons, I haven’t been back to Virginia in almost two years. Here’s what I know: William & Mary needs more money, like all colleges, but unlike all colleges, in fact unlike most colleges of its character, it is a public university, which means that the Virginia state government ultimately has the final say in most things William & Mary. The Board of Visitors is a state-appointed group of administrators who run the college. Gene Nichol gets hired, makes strong pushes to diversify the student body and provide more financial support to students in need, and now he’s fired. When the Board of Visitors made that decision, they were sitting in their meeting room, which is furnished with a U-shaped, 20-foot, marble-topped table and about 30 deep, cushy leather chairs. The chairs alone cost $6000 apiece, which means that when the BoV decided to can Nichol for whatever reason, their asses were comfortably resting in chairs that could have put fifteen Virginia students through four years at W&M.

The BoV can make all the claims they want about supporting Nichol’s ideals and programs, but they’re still sitting in leather chairs, writing on a marble-topped table, and paying techs like me minimum wage to sit in their meetings and open PowerPoint files for them.

To the Board of Visitors: screw you, and get your act together.

[UPDATE 2-14-08] Taylor Reveley sweeps in! Like your best friend who’s always had his eye on your girl, the runner-up to Nichol in the W&M presidential race of 2005 is there to let W&M cry on his shoulder, and then take her home and bang her.

Why am I so disgusted by these events? Am I getting old?

Written by Daniel Grady

February 14, 2008 at 15:41

Posted in Rants

A Change of Scenery

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A little while ago, I drove home to spend a few days with my family. I had wanted to read Edward Tufte’s books on graphic design, and since my dad conveniently owned the first three he loaned them to me. I’ve since finished moving into a new apartment, and finished those books.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is, despite the title, absolutely delightful. Every aspect of the production of the book was carefully undertaken, and the result is a volume that is physically beautiful. More important, though, is that it is written with clarity, economy, and wit. Tufte advances an idea. He presents evidence. The reader is convinced. The structure of the book is transparent, leaving the reader with a clear idea of exactly what is discussed, and how it fits into the larger argument. The language is crisp and engaging, and when he presents examples of bad graphic design, Tufte scolds without being strident. The tone of the book is entirely Horatian.

Tufte’s subsequent two books are exercises in repetition. The third book, written over a decade after Visual Display, offers in the introduction an explanation of the function of the three books in relation to one another. The ill-fit argument is that the first book is about pictures of numbers, the second book about pictures of nouns, and the third book about pictures of verbs. This is rather surprising; to take one example the chart on page 42 of the first book directly prefigures much of the third book. In fact it is very difficult to discover anything substantive in the second or third books that was not initially discussed, with greater clarity and brevity, in the first book. Tufte does continue to present beautiful examples of graphic design, and these examples continue to be printed in beautifully crafted books. Unfortunately, as the weight of the paper increases, he uses more and more words to say less. The second and third books become rambling and unfocused; bad examples are caustically attacked; no clear and coherent argument emerges. The reader is left wondering what the purpose of books two and three really is, as they seem little more than example books, albeit very beautiful ones.

This is probably a problem with me more than with Tufte. Phillip Pullman wrote a trilogy of fantasy novels, His Dark Materials (now being turned in to a movie trilogy), which I had a similar experience with. The first book was wildly creative, original, and entertaining, and I eagerly dove in to the remaining two only to see the story quickly degrade into a saccharine morality tale. But that tale was undoubtedly present from the very beginning, if I had just read a little more carefully. The issue was probably that I had a different idea of the story than the author, and wasn’t willing to go along with anything else. So it probably went with Tufte. The first book was so impressive and gave me such a clear personal idea of what the follow-ups should be that I couldn’t (and can’t) judge them with an objective eye.

Anyhow. It still pisses me off.

So my new apartment is awesome. You should come party.

Written by Daniel Grady

September 10, 2007 at 02:42

Posted in Books, Rants

Elevators

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When an elevator is not in use, it returns to a default floor and waits to be called. That makes sense. However, it waits with its doors closed. That doesn’t make sense. If an elevator is already waiting on the first floor, why should I have to push a button to make it open its doors? Waiting with open doors would help circulate the air, it would be more convenient to people who approach the elevator on the default floor, and it would negligibly affect the time it takes the elevator to respond to calls from other floors.

The argument could be made that elevators sitting with open doors would negatively affect the aesthetics of a lobby. The counter is that architects should view this as an opportunity to improve the interior design of elevators.

Written by Daniel Grady

July 15, 2007 at 19:02

Posted in Rants

The ETS

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Those of you in high school or college are likely familiar with the Educational Testing Service, or ETS, hereafter referred to as “those insufferable craphounds.” Those insufferable craphounds are running an organization that markets itself as nonprofit while still finding it mysteriously necessary to charge students exorbitant prices for the privilege of subjecting themselves to tests such as the SAT or GRE. Examining their webpage, one finds that they make much of “listening to educators, parents, and critics” (notice the exclusion of “students” from that list) in order to do a better job of helping “teachers teach and students learn.” All I can say to that is they must be pretty goddamn hard of hearing, because I have not ever in my entire life heard a single, solitary word of praise for those insufferable craphounds from anybody, be they student, teacher, parent, or disinterested third-party critic. At best, people grudgingly put up with them as some sort of necessary evil. And I can also say to them that, speaking as a student, the only thing those insufferable craphounds have ever helped me to learn is to exploit common fallibilities in multiple-choice tests, which is, interestingly, a skill that will be completely useless in my professional life.

Examining their mission statement, one discovers some intriguing claims. Let’s quote them, shall we?

Our Mission: To advance quality and equity in education by providing fair and valid assessments, research, and related services. Our products and services measure knowledge and skills, promote learning and educational performance, and support education and professional development for all people worldwide.

Those insufferable craphounds state that their products measure knowledge and skills. In a certain sense this may be true; in fact, if they intend “knowledge and skills” to mean “ability to quickly answer standardized test questions,” then they have hit the nail on the head. If they intend “knowledge and skills” to mean “ability to effectively learn, ability to succeed academically, and ability to critically analyze and solve a variety of problems,” then their mission statement is more than a gross misrepresentation, it is an outright lie. According to those insufferable craphounds, I correctly identified the relationship between “obsequious” and “stipendiary,” but remarkably, I had not a clue what either of those words meant, and could not have used them in conversation or writing. According to those insufferable craphounds, I can correctly answer the majority of 28 questions relating to pre-calculus mathematics in under 45 minutes, which is clearly an important thing to know, because having a crazed lunatic point a gun to my head and threaten to kill me if I can’t correctly tell him how far Farmer Bob has to go to get to the market in under two minutes is a DAILY FUCKING OCCURRENCE in my world. According to those insufferable craphounds, when I walk in to a testing center unprepared and get a good score by relying on my ability to guess well on multiple choice tests, I am more qualified to study at graduate schools than people who earned a slightly lower score by working hard to prepare for the test.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the entire situation is that colleges and graduate schools seem to actually put stock in the tests that those insufferable craphounds administer. Particularly graduate schools. Come one folks, use your damn heads. I have been at college working hard for four motherfucking years, and you hope to glean something meaningful about my academic ability from a two hour standardized test? You’re already looking at my academic record, my GPA, letters of recommendation from people who know me. What are these test scores going to relate to you? How accurate do you think that is as compared to those other piddling bits of information?

Universities, please, take Mr. T’s advice and don’t be fools: SAT and GRE scores are not telling you anything useful about your potential students. Look at GPAs, look at the classes they’ve taken, look at their recommendations; Christ, you could even try talking to them. Don’t continue to subject us to the pointless and degrading ordeal of standardized tests.

I am sorry for that diatribe, ’cause I bet that I was basically just screaming at the choir. But goddamn, it did feel good to write it down. Fuck you, ETS.

Written by Daniel Grady

October 28, 2005 at 19:16

Posted in Rants

Our campus has been overrun…

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By anti-abortionists. There was some guy standing outside the physics building this morning shouting at us to embrace Jesus and stop killing infants, and a dude standing next to a huge picture of bloody, dead fetus was trying to hand me a flyer saying not to get an abortion. Because, you know, being a guy and all, I had really been considering one.

There was also some guy standing outside the library, telling us we’re all going to hell for being at college. Because, clearly, if God had wanted us to learn, he would have given us brains. Oh, wait…

Not that anyone around here is really all that ticked off; this is the most entertaining thing to come through campus this semester. But for any anti-abortionists or other generally crazy people out there, let me give you some tips: You are not going to win a single, solitary convert by coming to a college campus and being loud and obnoxious. At college, if you’re being lound and obnoxious, it usually means you’re drunk, and we don’t pay a lot of attention to you. The way you’re going to win converts is by logically persuading us that your position is the more sensible one. Why religous fundamentalists have yet to try using this approach will no doubt remain a mystery…

Written by Daniel Grady

September 26, 2005 at 12:47

Posted in Rants

Merit-based economies and Schoenberg

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A few days ago I mentioned reading Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and said it was good and fun and all, but not outstanding. Well, it’s been turning over in my mind, and the more I think about it the more appealing I find his whole idea of a merit-based economy. I’ve got no idea if this is something that other people have written about previously or what, but Doctorow sets his story in a society that no longer uses money; science has advanced to the point where all the necessities of life are essentially free for the taking. A person’s ‘worth,’ in this society, is determined by the amount of respect others have for them. Read about it here.

What got me thinking about this was Arnold Schoenberg, whom we’ve been studying in my music history class. Schoenberg was the first composer to develop any kind of coherent system for writing atonal music. Now, the phrase ‘systemetized atonal music’ is kind of misleading, because it makes it sound like such music would have an audible, coherent structure, which isn’t the case. Schoenberg spent some time before he developed his system, called serialism, writing atonal music without any particular blueprint. His suite Pierrot Lunaire is probably the most famous example of this. His efforts to devise a system for writing atonal music that didn’t rely on an external text for structure ultimately led to his creation of serialism.

Serialism, or the twelve-tone system, was a method that allowed Schoeberg to compose pieces that were completely atonal, yet still afforded the composer a framework in which to organize a work. Serialistic compositions are masterpieces of mathematical precision, rife with clever juxtapositions and inversion of lines, and absolutely unintelligible when listened to. In order to understand a twelve-tone piece on even the most basic level, you have to sit down with the score and analyze it. In fact, there’s really not much of a point in listening to the piece in the first place, because it’s not going to help you understand what’s going on, and you certainly won’t enjoy it.

Schoenberg’s earlier atonal pieces frequently sound like a group of instruments playing more or less random notes in no particular rhythm. His later serialistic pieces, which are possessed of an incredibly stringent, erudite structure, also sound like a group of instruments playing random notes in no particular rhythm. Interestingly, you can play one piece from each period of Schoenberg’s career to a trained musician or composer, and nine times out of ten they won’t be able to tell if the piece is serialistic or not.

The point is that Schoeberg created a system by which all the humanity could be removed from the process of writing ‘music;’ but the end result was not really art, rather, it was nothing more than intellectual masturbation. Schoenberg claimed his music was a natural extension of the development of music, and so wrote his first serialistic piece, a piano suite, based on traditional classical forms. What to him was a way of fitting his work in with the great masterpieces of the past to me seems like an attempt to legitimize something that can barely be called music.

But, what thinking about Doctorow’s book got me to realize is that, although my opinion about Schoenberg is shared by a shockingly large number of people, it’s not the whole story. Clearly not everyone feels this way, since we still at least study Schoenberg, and the crucial factor for the man himself would have been if enough people considered his work meritorious for him to continue doing it. It doesn’t matter so much that I happen to think his music is crap; there are people who find it richly rewarding, and on the basis of their opinion his work has some merit. So, moral of the story is that Daniel learned to be more open-minded.

It strikes me as kind of funny that even today, artists and scientists, the people who move society forward, are following something like this merit based system; few of them are well-paid, but they continue to do their work because they’re inspired to do so and because of the respect it earns them among their peers. Maybe one day the rest of us will catch up.

I think I lost my point halfway through the rant about Schoenberg. Sorry. Only one more final, thank god.

Written by Daniel Grady

May 7, 2005 at 01:37

Posted in Books, Music, Rants