Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Browner Shade of Pale

It’s funny…inside the space of one week Cheryl and I watched two movies that got me thinking about the same subject, but in different ways. The first was The Green Card Tour, the latest video from Indo-Canadian comedian Russell Peters. This performance was filmed in England, and as he looked around at the multicultural crowd, he said, “England, what happened? You used to be the factory that made white people.”

The second was William Shatner’s documentary The Captains, which had interviews with everyone to play the role of a leading captain in all the shows and movies of the Star Trek franchise. In the interview with Avery Brooks, who played Commander Benjamin Sisko, he said that he decided to do this show because it “showed a future where there were still brown people.”

The two didn’t come together in my head until about a week later. As I thought about what Brooks said, I was reminded of what demographers have said for the past few years, and what Russell Peters noted about England: by the year 2050, the United States will be a “minority majority” country. That is to say that no one group will be in the majority; there will be a number of pluralities, but the one very certain thing is that white people will no longer be the dominant group.

Avery Brooks need not have worried.

Then I thought about the map…or rather…the globe; and as I thought about the globe, I found it remarkable that there was a 500-year span of time when white people were thought to be in the majority in the first place. I mean think about it…look at the globe yourself. In Africa the indigenous people are various shades of brown. In North and South America you have the same thing, with a little red thrown in. In Asia you have brown with a touch of yellow. And then…in this one little corner of the world called Europe, you have some people who aren’t brown at all. In fact some are so pale that they’re translucent.

The simple fact of the matter is that the world has always been majority minority, it’s just that that’s not where the power was for the past 500 years. All things considered, but for a bloody nose in Asia or an alert baker in Vienna…not to mention a few smallpox infections in Central America…things could’ve looked very different. But somehow the tiny countries in one tiny continent of the world ended up populating and taking power in places where they had never been before…far out of proportion to their populations in the places they originally came from. And for centuries, they thought this was not only normal, but the way it should be.

But a funny thing happened in the 20th century: increased travel and the emancipation of the indigenous peoples who had in one way or another been under the power of the European minority. And with the increased ability to travel, instead of the whites going to the lands of the browns, the browns were going to the lands of the whites.

And with this new migration another thing started happening: increased intermarriage between groups, which led to many white families having brown grandchildren. It seems that the white population isn’t going to decrease just because of the greater fecundity of the brown populations, but also because they’re helping to add to that brown population themselves.

Now, we’re pretty used to this concept as Americans. The gradual browning of America, or even Canada, is really no surprise to us; and I’ve already talked about the browning of England. But imagine…and it will happen eventually…the browning of France, of Spain, or…of Germany (can’t you just see Hitler spinning in his grave like a turbine?).

Knowing this, I suppose it was William Shatner who should’ve wondered, when he took on the part of Captain Kirk 44 years ago, about a future where there would still be white people.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Nostalgia Just Ain't What It Used To Be

A few weeks ago I saw a complaint by someone on the Internet about Nick@Nite and TV Land. It seems that according to this person, they’ve stopped showing “classic” shows like The Dick VanDyke Show or All in the Family and are now showing “90s crap” like Married with Children.

I chuckled to myself when I read that. You see, growing up in North Jersey, I was in the land of abundant TV. We had seven stations: the three networks, three independent channels, and the PBS station. And in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, those three independent stations were the home of endless reruns and countless old movies. Nick@Nite and TV Land were just WNEW, WOR, and WPIX on a national scale. It was on these stations that my sister and I watched reruns of The Odd Couple, Make Room for Daddy, and of course I Love Lucy every afternoon.

But it was also on these stations that we watched reruns of shows that most of you under the age of 40 have never heard of. Shows like December Bride, My Little Margie, and I Married Joan.

This is why I chuckled; you see the guy who complained on the Internet doesn’t seem to get the fact that nostalgia is always a moving target. The definition of a “classic old TV show” changes as the years go by and the viewers get older…and the target audience is a younger generation. Sure, to him, shows from the 60s like Dick VanDyke and Bewitched were classics, and the stuff that came afterwards was crap. But people just a few years older would find themselves ranking Father Knows Best among the classics.

And when you think about how soon we saw shows hit the rerun stations after they’d been cancelled back in the old days, it makes perfect sense to me that Married with Children would eventually show up a good 15 years after its last original episode was broadcast.

But still, I do understand the poor guy who wants to see Dick VanDyke again. I’d like to watch Oscar and Felix together again; or Archie and the Meathead; and even Jim, Margaret, Princess, Bud, and Kitten. But I know that if I want to do that, all I have to do is buy the DVD collection.

Then I can watch them whenever I want.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Academic Computing

I used to work for an organization at Syracuse University called Academic Computing Services, and that colors my view of computers in all levels of education. We weren’t the School of Engineering, we weren’t the School of Computer Science, we weren’t even the School of Information Studies. Even though we were in charge of most of the computers on the campus, we didn’t teach any programming courses…at least not for credit. So what did we do?

We taught you how to use our computers in support of your education. What few programming workshops we taught were toward that end. We got you started with enough FORTRAN to get you through some really intense Math, Engineering, or Science projects. We taught you enough SPSS or SAS to be able to run the statistics you needed for that Political Science or Public Policy course. We might even teach you the APL you needed in order to get started as a “real” Computer Science student. But for the most part, our job was to support you in using our computers as a tool in whatever discipline you might be studying, be that Linguistics or Physics, Religion or Engineering.

And a lot of what we did involved teaching you to use our computers, our mainframe computers back then, for writing and formatting your papers. We helped a lot of doctoral students with their dissertations on what would now look like a very rudimentary word processing system, but a system that still beat making corrections on a typewriter. As time went on and we went through the PC revolution, we started teaching how to do your word processing, spreadsheets, and databases on those machines, as well as how to connect to our mainframes from them.

But the point remains that our focus was on the academic use of computing, and not programming for its own sake. And even calling it academic computing misses the point, because these were skills that could carry you through the rest of your life.

This is a focus that I believe a lot of us have lost in the world of elementary and secondary education. We seem to want every kid to be able to write the next Angry Birds, and don’t care about teaching them to use Java or C++ or whatever the new “language du jour” is to create the 1000 virtual marbles we need in order to take a better look at the question of whether or not it’s fair to worry about most of the black kids sitting together at lunch when most of the white kids do too. We want them all to be able to create great podcasts and videos to post online, and don’t care about teaching them the word processing skills that will get them through their four years of writing papers as a Nutrition major.

We are so concerned with being number one in Computer Technology that we have forgotten about Academic Computing. Indeed, in many places we have denigrated Academic Computing, considering it to be something lower than “Technology Education,” because it’s not as exciting or sexy. In some places we have even gone so far as to say that we don’t need to teach this, because it’s something they can pick up for themselves on YouTube.

We need to remember that not everyone is going to be a programmer or an engineer. We need to remember that we are also educating people who will become nurses, accountants, lawyers, actuaries, ministers, rabbis, writers, librarians, and who knows what all else. In fact, this will be the vast majority of the people we educate.

And we owe it to them to remember the concept of academic computing.

You may also want to read my previous posts We Still Need to Teach Computer Literacy and The Four Stupid Smart Girls and US.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Alfie and the Fairy

I was first introduced to Alfie as a kid in Braddock, PA, and I was terrified by him. We were visiting there at the end of October, and my cousin Alan was going to be part of the annual Halloween parade. And as I recall, even though he was participating as a pumpkin, he was running around the house wearing a mask of Alfred E Neuman.

Yes…that Alfred E Neumann. The face that has graced countless covers of Mad magazine since the late 50s, and had quite a life on calendars and postcards before he became their official mascot. This lopsided, goofy-looking, face was the face that struck terror into the heart of a little five-year-old kid.

I was never really comfortable with that face; it caused many nightmares, but one day, at a friend’s house, I actually took a look inside of an issue, and was instantly hooked. That face still bothered me, but I formed an uneasy truce with it as I devoured every issue of Mad for the next ten or so years. It was an image that I could deal with during the light of day, but knew better than to look at when I was alone at night, because it could still cause nightmares.

And then one night, as an adult, I had a dream that changed everything. This wasn’t the usual nightmare where his goal was to frighten and tickle me. This dream was different. He seemed sad, and didn’t seem to want to taunt me at all. I cautiously approached him, and asked what was wrong.

He told me that his name, the name he preferred to go by, was “Alfie,” and that he was a really nice guy who just happened to have a goofy-looking face that everyone made fun of, and he didn’t mean to scare me. He asked if we could be friends.

How could you possibly turn down an appeal like that? I agreed, and when I woke up, I had a whole new relationship with that face…or the guy behind it. Alfie’s a friend of mine now.

Which brings me to the fairy. For the past 18 months I seem to have been visited by what a friend of mine calls the Shit Fairy much more often than I’d like to be, or that my friends would like to see. Those of you who know me well know all the gory details. This friend went so far as to say, “Looks like the Shit Fairy backed up her truck and delivered you a huge load.”

And so 2011 drew to a close, I posted a cartoon on my Facebook page that said I was looking forward to kicking the Shit Fairy out of my life during the coming year, and I got a lot of “likes” on it. And then a little later I thought about her…and Alfie.

Perhaps I misunderstood her, as I had misunderstood Alfie. Maybe she wasn’t being spiteful, and intentionally trying to screw up my life, so maybe I shouldn’t take such joy in trying to forcibly kick her out. Perhaps, rather than fighting her, I should take the time to befriend her…and then introduce her to a nice farmer or gardener…someone who normally has to pay for what she’s giving away for free. Maybe we can both win here.

Yes, I think I’ll do that. And maybe then, in 2012 I’ll be able to join Alfie in saying, “What, me worry?”