Sunday, April 26, 2015

Mad Men: Random Bullets of Time & Life


  • I didn't realize until tonight that Mad Men has been playing the long game of "false antagonist turned ally" versus "true antagonist." CGC is the temporary antagonist, but going back to Season 1, McCann has been the true antagonist, just waiting to overpower our Sterling Cooper partners with money.  Kill them with kindness? 
  • At any rate, they don't have to struggle for Heinz, the Coca-Cola of ketchup.  They now have the gold standard, the Coca-Cola of Coca-Colas.
  • Diana the sad waitress is mercifully absent, although Don looks for her.  I fear that she will meet Adam's fate because I have an illogical suspicion that she is somehow Don's half-sister, Archie's daughter.  [Edited to add: Think about it.  Don is born in 1926, and Arch is killed by a horse when he's 10, or 1936. If Archie has another encounter with a prostitute that had resulted in a child in 1935 or so, that would be about the right birth date for DtSW. That's why he creepily believes that he already knows her. Either that, or Diana is going to be Don's Charlotte Corday.]
  • But she is also Mildred Pierce, which is what Roger called her, with daughter dead of the flu (check), another living (check), and an ex-husband (check). Mildred would never have left her children, though. 
  • When Diana comes on, I keep thinking of Keats's "I have been half in love with easeful death." 
  • Why was Megan so angry last week that Don had to write her a check for a million dollars? How had he ruined her life? Giving her a shot at advertising and helping her acting career and financing her pretty lavishly for several years?  I missed the memo where that defined ruination--and anyway, if you look back to the beginning, the moves are mostly all hers. 
  • They went all the way back to Glencoe, really, to deny Pete and Trudy's daughter admittance to Greenwich Country Day School?  This episode really is about everyone's history and its inescapability, isn't it? 
  • Speaking of history, a nice callback:  when Peggy is telling Stan about the baby she gave up, the music in the background is "Stranger on the Shore."  That's the same music that played at the end of Season 2, "Meditations in an Emergency," when she told Pete that she had given up their baby.  What are the odds that it would still be playing on the radio in 1970?  It may have appeared in other episodes, too. 
  • I love that Peggy asked Stan to stay on the phone, the way they used to stay on the phone when working late at night. 
  • The other thing that this episode was about is people getting something that ought to be seen as good (as Don tells them all) but no one believing it.  
  • Also about tantalizing illusions: even if you hope Bruce Greenwood will swoop in and be Joan's true love, that wouldn't be enough for her.  Trudy and Pete back together? Stan and Peggy? Ted and college love? Roger and Marie? The Mad Men overlords won't permit this, I'm sure. 
Update: NPR tells me  that "Stranger on the Shore" also appears in Season 6, Episode 11, "Favors," but it doesn't fit my Peggy-son theory, so I will ignore it.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Today in MOOC predation: ASU specific about making a profit, vague about everything else

Here is the ASU Plan, from Inside Higher Ed. 

First, go read Jonathan Rees's article about what ASU is doing with its MOOC "Global Freshman Academy.  The basic idea is that ASU is pairing with EdX to give MOOC credit--and, for a $200/credit hour fee, ASU course credit--for those who complete its "courses." Rees rightly points out that this is a smart predation or "no honor among thieves" model, in which whoever steals first steals best.

Then read Dean Dad (Matt Reed), who asks, very sensibly, why anyone would pay $200/credit hour to get MOOC credit when credit at a CC is about $83 per credit hour AND you get access to libraries, tutoring, and other supports.  "Where's the benefit?" he asks, and I can't see one.

It's an old principle in retail and drug dealing, of course: the loss leader. Give them a taste for free or near free, and they'll come back for more.

The private college version is to give heavy financial aid in Year One so that the student attends the school and then cut that aid in subsequent years, when the student is already committed.  I have known people so embittered about this practice after going through it as students that, decades later, they won't give to the school even though they are now exactly the kind of well-off alums that the school wants to court.

Back to ASU's MOOC plan.  Many paragraphs later, here are the specifics:

  • Courses are 7.5 weeks long, or what would be half a semester at Northern Clime and most universities.
  • It will consist of a "master teacher" and teaching assistants.  No word yet on whether the "master teacher" will be immortalized on a hard drive somewhere to teach lessons in eternity, but maybe that's in a future iteration of the plan.
  • What about grading nonquantifiable subjects like, say, writing? 

  • "Mastery in some courses -- math, for example -- is easier to track through multiple-choice tests or automated grading, but those tools won’t necessarily work in a freshman composition class. “When you have 50,000 students versus 50 students, the methods of evaluation and the methods of assessment will change, but we will have both formative assessments and summative assessments at the end of the course,” Regier said. “We haven’t figured out what we’re going to do in every course yet, and we know every course is going to be different.”

    To sum up: no plan yet. For now,  ASU plans to have "actual people" grade the work. No word yet on whether those people will be tenure-track or have an otherwise stable job with health benefits, etc.  Of course, this problem isn't unique to MOOC-inspired education. 
Leaving aside the questions we've posed before about eliminating the fun parts of teaching a class and leaving us with the un-fun parts, like grading, I have to give ASU credit for not using commercial software to grade essays--yet.  But I have to wonder:

  • Won't this dilute ASU's "brand," since there are no admissions standards for the MOOCs and ASU still has them?  The elite schools' MOOCs have been quite clear that no riffraff MOOC students will be getting credit from Elite U. 
  • If they're giving ASU credit, will that appear on transcripts without any qualifiers (like "MOOC Credit")? 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

How do you reward yourself for tasks?

Another conference has come and gone, with its checklist of things both stressful and happy:

  • Anticipation--or, let's call it by its real name, anxiety--about getting ready crowding out other thoughts and writing: check.
  • Getting up and/or getting to bed at ungodly hours so that you can make the plane: check.
  • The huge wave of relief after your presentation is done and it goes well: check.
  • Walking around a city and seeing a little bit of the sights: check.
Well, you all know the drill.  But a long time ago I made some kind of implicit pact that the day after getting back from a conference would be a day, or at least a morning, of wild abandon rather than more work.

Here is what "wild abandon" looks like:
  • Sleep in until natural waking time (5:30 a.m.). 
  • Watch Mad Men. Eat lots of breakfast. 
  • Find half-empty bag of Guittard milk chocolate chips and eat them all up.  Yes, in the morning. What? Who says breakfast can't have dessert?  
  • Watch a Barbara Stanwyck movie. 
  • Watch more Mad Men. 
  • At noon, go into the study and start clearing out files for the next project. 
  • Go for a walk.
Now, this doesn't exactly measure up to a scene of wild debauchery, but it has so many elements of academic transgression--television in the morning! Chocolate!--that it did feel like a reward. 

How do you reward yourself for doing things that are good for you but not exactly fun? 



Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Mad Men 7: Random Bullets of a Brief Review

Now that Historiann has opened the voting, so to speak, and to follow up on my earlier Mad Men thoughts, herewith some random bullets of Mad Men 7.1.  I saw it during the regular broadcast time, since there was laundry to fold and since iTunes refuses to download episodes with the season pass that I bought.
  • "Is That All There Is?" played 3 times in this episode. We get it. Is Don having an existential crisis? Does he ever have anything else?
  • On the other hand, Don wears a striped shirt! The times they are a-changin'.
  • If Don came to me as a fortuneteller, I would totally clean up: "You are haunted by a mysterious brunette from your past, and she will return in your dreams. You cannot erase this figure through sexual contact with other brunette women."
  • Critics seem to think that Ken would have been better off writing his novel than getting back in the game with Dow.  Matt Weiner says this, and so does Alan Sepinwall, who's the critic most worth reading.  But to do this, Ken has to live on Cynthia's money, and he has always resolutely resisted that. Also, he has said that they have to pay (emotionally) for anything they get from Cynthia's parents and that there are lots of strings attached.
  • Isn't living on your wife's money just as corrupting, in its way, as working for Dow, even though it does not involve a hazmat suit? What Ken really has is two bleak choices: Dow's money or his wife's.
  • A thought experiment: Did Peggy have a choice in the meeting with the frat guys from McCann other than ignoring their halfwitted remarks and plowing ahead, if she wanted to enlist their help? Should Joan have brought along a flame-thrower? Discuss.
  • Note to Peggy: cheering Joan up, or dispensing sanctimony and blaming Joan for the way she looks, in an elevator is always a losing proposition. The decade will declare that "Sisterhood is powerful," but individual experiences might argue "not so much."
  • The internet loses its mind about Roger's and Ted's mustaches, and Weiner declares that people in future generations will think that the 2015 beards will look strange. Well, facial hair comes and goes. My bet is that people will think that men shaving their heads over the past 20 years or so will be thought odd, since that's historically a new development in male sartorial splendor, unless you're counting the era when men shaved their heads to wear wigs. 
  • Since Season 6 was basically a repeat of Season 4 (fine performances with endless downward spiral), I'm hoping that Season 7 will repeat Season 5, if it needs to repeat anything. I want a happy ending of some kind for these characters.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Off Topic: Amazon Dash, the awesome CueCat of 2015

For about 30 years, breathless news stories have been telling us that we want smart homes, including refrigerators that can automatically see when we're low on milk and order it for us.

This is to save us from the .0000025 seconds
that it takes to open the refrigerator door and see that we're out of milk.

Amazon Dash is the product of the same Refrigerator Needs to be Connected thinking: the unnecessary product that fulfills an imaginary need (but that doesn't stop Time from heralding it as "awesome.")   It's a series of individual wi-fi controlled buttons that you put all over your house so that you can order the product from Amazon immediately, without walking the 10 steps to your computer.

For example, if you put a Tide button in the laundry room, and you notice that you need laundry detergent, you push the button and shazam! Two days later, the Tide shows up from Amazon.  You can order juice, dog food, and toilet paper in the same way--because getting things a few days later when you need them immediately is much better than getting them right away.

Various news sites swear that this isn't an April Fool's prank, but I wonder. 

1.  Why would anyone want to look at, say, a Tide button every week for several months just so that the one time in 3-6 months you need it, you can press a button?
2. Why wouldn't it be faster, cheaper, and easier to buy the products when, like most people living within range of a grocery store, you go to the grocery store?
3. Wouldn't the button and its branding fade into the background, so that you'd forget to use it anyway?

And, in the imaginary needs department: I can see why it would be a marketer's dream to have tiny ads stuck to cupboards and walls all over your house, but is it your dream?

Another entry in the "technology is always cool" connected-refrigerator line of thinking was the now-defunct CueCat.  Remember those from the year 2000?  

The idea was that you would somehow get a CueCat (Madio Mack apparently gave out the CueCats, but I never got one) with a unique serial number.  You would then read the ads in the newspaper (how quaint!), scan the special CueCat code, and then get even more ad information when you looked on your computer.  In the meantime, the CueCat people got information about your consumer preferences.

To CueCat's surprise, consumers seemed to be pretty happy with the level of advertising they were already being bombarded with, and the CueCat was a failure.  They were an advertiser's dream of how consumers would ideally behave instead of something that was actually needed. Ironically,
 they now have a second life as a barcode scanner--an actually useful item--on LibraryThing.

So I'm picturing the conversations now:

"You know what this laundry room needs?  More Tide branding!"

"Tiny velour guest towels that don't dry anything? Check. Tiny floral-scented soaps that no guest will use? Check. What else does this bathroom need in the way of decor?  A branded Dash button so you can order toilet paper every 3 months, that's what.  Tells our guests we care about them."

"Who says dogs can't read?  Mine have been ordering 26-pound bags of dog food every week since we installed the Dash button and they started pushing it.  And the FedEx delivery person says he's never had such a good workout!"

Your thoughts? 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Mad Men thoughts on the approaching finale of Season 7

It's known as a mind vacation.  You need it at the point of the semester when you know that, whatever task you work on, someone is going to be disappointed or angry, because you can't get everything done on time. 

But in a mind vacation, I can rewatch Mad Men for an hour or two while folding laundry or when I'm too tired to work or need to shut my mind down in order to get to sleep. The press of all the things I'm not doing/haven't done are completely at bay for that time.  Reading isn't a mind vacation any more, because I'm hammered by thoughts that I should be reading for work.

I began with Season 2 and am up to the beginning of Season 5. I'm looking forward with some anticipation and a little dread to the upcoming half season finale of Mad Men. Some random thoughts:
  •  In Season 4's "The Suitcase," one of the best hours of the series ever, Don and Peggy have a huge blowup before coming to understand each other. When she reproaches him for never thanking her, he erupts, "That's what the money is for!" She makes a personal or sentimental appeal, and he, as usual, reacts with rage or coldness. 

    What I hadn't realized until this viewing is that this is exactly what happened when Conrad ("Connie") Hilton drops Sterling Cooper in the last episode of Season 3, the fantastic "Shut the Door. Have a Seat." Hilton tells Don that he's "cutting him loose," and Don gets angry, making a sentimental appeal about Hilton wanting to kick him around, treating him like a son and then dropping him, etc.  Hilton just stands there and says it's just business (or some other Godfather-inspired thing). They end by shaking hands. 

    In "The Suitcase," Don is angry, sure, and upset about Anna, but he's channeling Hilton by telling Peggy that this is about business.  Of course it's about more than that, but what better way to reclaim your power than by channeling Conrad Hilton?  It's a lesson in business for Peggy, in this season of lessons, and by the end of Season 5 (when she leaves SCDP), she's learned to take this power into her own hands.
  • Speaking of "The Suitcase," why didn't Jon Hamm win the Emmy for this? I think he lost that year to Steve Buscemi for Boardwalk Empire, and while Buscemi did good work, it didn't touch Hamm's. Since I'm not a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, my opinion doesn't count for anything, though. 
  • Every single person in academia would benefit from spending an hour a week with lovable Dr. Edna, the child psychiatrist who sees Sally for a time in Season 4. 
  • They (the writers) should have kept Megan at SCDP.  Think about it: she's a naturally gifted copywriter and a decent actress.  Her ascent would have threatened Don in different ways, and it would have made for interesting conflicts with Peggy. We have Joan as a contrast to Peggy (traditional vs. new perspectives on women in the business world), but Megan would have been a different kind of competitor.  From the first, Megan seems a little . . . premeditated in her actions toward Don, and although she seems to love him, or tells him she does, there's a hint that he may be a means to an end.  She's like Jane Siegel Sterling but with career ambitions.

    Once Megan went to follow her bliss as an actress, there was less and less point to her being on the show. By Season 6, she would bounce into the apartment once in a while, but you kind of forgot why she was there.  She and Don seemed to have nothing in common; I would spend their scenes wondering what they found to talk about. She devolved into yet another example of his alienation, as if we didn't have enough of those already. Bonus: we could have seen more pitches like Cool Whip.  
  • To be honest, I fast-forward through some of the scenes. Lane Price and the pseudo-gangster. Some of Betty's perennial grouches.  The "weight-loss and hair-dye" Betty plotline from Season 6 might get skipped.

    Betty is like the reverse Sriracha sauce: a little of her makes the episode better by binding it together, but too much of her makes the episode more bland.
    Actually, a lot of Season 6 might get skipped.  The more I think about it and its Misery Theater, the more irritated I get at the wasted opportunity. See Don relive Season 4! See him drink and wallow in misery! See him engage in yet another affair, this one even more formulaic than the rest: 1. Sylvia expresses guilt at their affair.  2. They have sex.  3. Sylvia expresses more guilt and drops a few Pearls of Wisdom. Every. Single. Time.  The Bob Benson plot is fun, as is some of the agency stuff, but the Sylvia plot is irritating. 
    Your thoughts?  
Other Mad Men posts:
The Mad Men Dream Writing Group
Postwar Hauntings: Don Draper and Dana Andrews

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Promoted!

For a year or so, I've occasionally looked at the mostly empty box of business cards that I got when I came to Northern Clime.  Order new ones with "Associate Professor" on them? Or wait and see what happens?

Yes, dear readers, I now need new business cards because I can take the "Associate" title off and just write "Professor."

Thanks to all of you for hanging in there and reading, especially during the Great Obsessive MOOC streak.  This space and your blogs help so much--thanks!