Daily Archives: 01 Jan 2015

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Christmas Tweets

National Review: Smarter than ThouIn an indirect way, I’ve been very critical of Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’ve written a couple of complaining articles about Cosmos, the most recent being, Cosmos and the Lack of Politics. And the truth is, I’m not a fan of Tyson. I think it dates back to seeing him talking about how the gravity differentials as you were pulled into a black hole would cause you to be be ripped apart. That’s fine, but Tyson said that it would probably be the coolest way to die. All I could think was that this guy either suffered from a lack of empathy or a lack of imagination. But I’ll admit that since then, he’s seemed like an all right guy.

Thanks to the good people at The Young Turks, I learned about a collection of Christmas tweets from Tyson that greatly improved my opinion of the man. Here is the first:

It’s just kind of mindless fun — not very meaningful. But it offended some for the usual reason: American Christians don’t like the idea of anyone claiming that theirs is just a religion like many others. I really like this one because it is a truth that many do not like to hear:

The reason for the season is shopping. Get over it Christians! And start taking Easter more seriously because it really ought to be the one really important holiday for you if you were at all serious about your religion — which you aren’t. Okay, but enough religion. Let’s get on to the real Christmas physics:

There’s a sociological side to this too. What happened to Benny? I assume he starved to death because Santa couldn’t find any use for him. If he was very lucky, he was good at dentistry and got a job working for Hermey. But here is the tweet that caused the most fuss:

Indeed, the Christmas before last, I featured Newton in the birthday post, Happy Newton’s Day! Anyway, I think the tweet speaks for itself. But if you want more, read Tyson’s article about it, My Most Retweeted Tweet. There is no doubt that Newton is more important in the history of the world than Jesus. I say this because if it hadn’t been Jesus, it would have been some other mythical being. There is nothing special about Jesus. But I don’t expect Christians to agree with me.

Afterword

On new year’s eve, Tyson tweeted out his four favorite Twilight Zone episodes. One of them was, “The Invaders” — a truly great episode despite the silly art direction. It’s more than made up with by a great performance by Agnes Moorehead and a great ending. Similarly, “Monsters on Maple Street” is a great one — as true today as it was in 1960. “The Shelter” perhaps shows that Tyson is something of a cynic. But fourth on his list was, “To Serve Man.” I don’t understand this. This is a favorite episode for many people. But it’s just a stupid pun expanded into a half hour of television. And what is that all about? The scientists can translate the title but not the text? The alien language would have the same ambiguous word meaning both “care for” and “prepare for dinner”? And why would the aliens give their cookbook to the humans? It’s just the silliest episode ever.

MOOCs and the End of Education

MOOC EducationAtrios asks, Does Anybody Remember MOOCs? For those who don’t know what the hell he’s talking about, MOOC is an acronym for “Massive Open Online Course.” It was one of the many “revolutionary” ideas that was going to save education in this country without, you know, the bother of actually spending any money or employing any teachers. Atrios noted that they had many problems. First, they didn’t scale the way people thought they would. Second, they were actually fairly expensive to provide after all. Third, just because Harvard was pushing them didn’t mean that anyone really thought that they were getting a Harvard education. And fourth, and most important, such courses might work better than teaching yourself with a book but they were never anything close to getting taught by a teacher.

Let’s just throw out one idea right away: a Harvard education isn’t as good as a Harvard education. Big name schools do such a great job “educating” students because of their names. They can demand the very best students with the very best preparation. The only way that getting educated at a big name school is helpful is that it provides for the “Chris Hughes Effect.” This is where you get to interact with a whole bunch of other smart and — more important — well connected people. So without doing anything of significance and without being of notable ability yourself — you too can have a half billion dollars, buy magazines, and run all over the world and be treated like you have half a clue about anything.

This is largely why learning from a book is not as good as going to college. It’s true that learning from books all by your lonesome is hard. As a result, people ought to be most impressed with the self-educated. Eric Hoffer ought to be a household name rather than William F Buckley Jr. But that isn’t the case because America is the most anti-meritocratic national that I can think of. The Harvard degree isn’t about what you know. It is more about who you know. The business community in the United States is interested in a Harvard degree the same way that a Hollywood casting director is interested in that episode of Break Bad an actor appeared in.

So the idea of the MOOC was always stupid. Let’s suppose you managed to give half the American people a Harvard level education. What then? All that would do would be to make a Harvard education useless. The society would have to find some other way to separate the impressive people from the unimpressive people. Because it isn’t about knowledge and it never has been. When the power elite talk about education, it is primarily for one reason: to claim that the poorer classes don’t have jobs and the ones who do are paid poorly because they lack education. It doesn’t matter that a dullard born rich like Bush the Younger is far better off than a genius born poor. Education is a good stick with which to beat the non-elite. And add to that an effort to destroy the one remaining middle class profession — teaching — and you have the whole thing. The power elite never need worry about anyone challenging its rule.

MOOCs are a thing of the past. But don’t worry! The power elite have an endless supply of ideas for how to “fix” education. There is always a new idea in the pipeline. As soon as they destroy all the teacher’s unions and reduce education to a $12 per hour job, they’ll have another idea that “This time!” will fix all the problems. And eventually they will come back to the MOOCs. There is no reason why a computer can’t teach our kids the only things that really matter: multiplication tables, circuit board assembly, and most of all, how to bow before their betters.

The Best We Can Imagine

Charles PierceWe are a little lost here in America. Too many of us have tuned out, and too many of us are deeply tuned in to the wrong things. Our eccentricities have curdled into crochets. Our love for the strange and deeply weird has soured into a devotion to the mean and deeply angry. Our renegade national soul has given itself up to petty outlawry. We have tailored the principles of our founding documents — flawed though their authors were — into cheap camouflage for our boring traditional grudges. None of these things are good things. But none of those things is permanent, either. Imagination always has been the way out — a faith in that which seems impossible, a trust that not every mystery is a murder mystery, and that not every mysterious creature is a monster. Imagination is the way out — a belief that safety is not necessarily the primary (or even the secondary) goal of democratic citizenship, and that a self-governing political commonwealth does not always come with a lifetime guarantee. Yes, we are a little lost here in America, but we can find our way, and the best way that we can find is the one that seems like the least secure, the darkest trail, the one with the long, sweeping bend in the road that leads god knows where. We must trust what we can imagine, and we must trust that what we can imagine is the product of what is the best of us. And, whether we imagine it or not, it’s going to happen anyway.

—Charlie Pierce
Goodbye to All That

Haunted By YouPorn

YouPornSome time ago, I was watching Kristen Schaal doing some stand-up comedy and she mentioned YouPorn. You never know with her. It would be entirely in keeping with her style to make up such a thing. On the other hand, of course the porn industry would create an “adult” site with that name. Although now that I think about it, YouTube sounds kind of obscene too. The truth is, just about everything sounds obscene in the right context. Anyway, I had to know, so I opened a new tab in Chrome and typed “youporn.com.” And sure enough: there is such a site and it is exactly what you would think it would be.

YouTube was created in February 2005. YouPorn was created in December 2005. And if you look on Alexa, you will see that YouTube is the third most popular website in the world while YouPorn is number 127. So clearly, the pornographers are clever people — they knew what they were doing. And I, as usual, am pretty clueless — not realizing that of course there would be a YouPorn.

Before I go on, I should explain Alexa traffic ratings. The lower the number the better. But 127 is still remarkably low. There are over a billion active websites on the internet. Frankly Curious usually has a ranking of a bit less than two million. That represents about 500 visitors per day. And it isn’t linear. A website with a ranking of 20 million (generally Alexa doesn’t rank sites with that little traffic) would not have 50 visitors per day but more like 5. So you can imagine the number of people who are visiting YouPorn — millions per day.

But YouPorn isn’t even at the top of the heap in terms of porn websites. Black Hat World provided a very helpful article about a year ago, List of Over 300 Porn Sites in Order by Their Traffic Ranking. YouPorn, with its nifty name only ranks number six behind such sites as XVideos, PornHub, and the similarly titled RedTube (created right after YouPorn). And YouPorn is only a little more popular than the charmingly titled YouJizz. Shockingly, Porn.com — created a full decade before YouPorn — isn’t even close. I guess like in anything, management matters.

Perhaps I would be better informed about all this if I were a big consumer of video porn. But I’m more of a literary guy myself. Video has many problems — most specifically it doesn’t really have motivation. People have sex. There really isn’t much motivation there. Although I will admit that I came upon a Russian how-to video that was excellent. It was aimed at young men and was more about seduction than mechanics. It really was charming, because it involved a young couple and it would show the guy screwing up and then rerun the whole thing with him behaving more appropriately. I really wish that I had had such a video when I was young. But regardless, such things are the exception and video porn is generally more like a filmed gynecological exam than anything sexy. Give me Anaïs Nin’s careful prose any day!

So there I was, encouraged by Kristen Schaal to see if YouPorn is a real thing and finding that, yes, it is a real thing. But then, the next time I needed to go to YouTube, I entered, “you…” That was always enough. Chrome filled in the rest and took me to YouTube. But not after the YouPorn incident! At that point, “you” took me to YouPorn. I’d been going to YouTube for many years and YouPorn once. But Chrome suddenly decided that “you” meant I wanted to go to the Sexy Site of Sexy Sex. I remained calm. I figured it was just using the last thing I entered. So I carefully entered YouTube each time. But after “You” it always offered up “YouPorn?”

It isn’t just that it was vaguely embarrassing. I do, after all, have Kristen Schaal to blame for it. But it interfered with my work. I am highly dependent upon habits. So I was forced to change my habits, which sucked. Well finally, Chrome now offers “YouTube?” when I type in “you.” But this took over two months to happen. Entering “YouPorn” once make the stupid browser think that I wanted nothing so much as the sixth most popular porn site on the internet. If Google didn’t own YouTube, I would suspect some kind of payola scam going on. As it is, I figure it is just bad programming.

E M Forster

E M ForsterOn this day in 1879, the great writer E M Forster was born. Admit it: you wouldn’t even know who he was if it weren’t for Merchant-Ivory or maybe that David Lean character. Oh, okay: you would know because you are a Frankly Curious reader — a better class of person. But it is definitely the case that Forster has been done pretty well by filmmakers in the 1980s and early 1990s. It might be because Forster wrote so much about hypocrisy and these were especially great times for hypocrisy in the the US and UK.

He is best known for writing A Room with a View and A Passage to India. But Forster was so much more than that. He wrote in lots of styles and forms — both fiction and nonfiction. He wrote plays. He even wrote an opera libretto. He was truly an amazing man.

What I find most interesting about him is his short story “The Machine Stops.” One doesn’t much think of Forster was a science fiction writer, but there you go. The whole story is online, and I highly recommend reading it. It’s about 10,000 words long — so something even I could read in bed before going to sleep. And what is perhaps more interesting about it is that it really isn’t that different from A Room With a View in terms of its theme. Fundamentally, he was always writing about people trying to connect with each other. He may have been pessimistic about that much of the time, but he always held out the hope.

I had embedded a BBC production of the story here, but Lawrence alerted me to the fact that it has been taken down. I can’t find a replacement. But if you would prefer to hear it read to you while you clean up the house, here is Jerome Lawsen reading it for a LibriVox recording:

Happy birthday E M Forster!