Nine albums that built me

This was a Twitter challenge from Questlove: List the nine albums that “built” you.
It’s a challenging challenge, first because it’s hard to limit it to nine, and secondly because I have to decide how to interpret “built.” It’s not nine best or nine favorites really, more like nine albums that were formative in some way. I could come up with several more than nine. Let me think through my choices here.

Quadrophenia – We didn’t have classic rock radio in those days. There was Top 40 and there was Album-Oriented Rock, and neither played The Who until Who Are You came out. I got Quadrophenia from the public library, and borrowed it over and over again. The library played a major role in my musical education over the decades, because it was a risk-free way to explore.
Volunteers – Another library find, this got me into the whole sixties hippie thing. It was my favorite record at one or more points in time. I grew up with Beatles albums because my parents had them, but I found there was a lot more going on back then.
There’s A Riot Goin’ On – This record took funk in a whole new direction. I came across it probably a decade after the fact, and was captivated by the sound. And fascinated by its significance in music history, so I became a student.
Horses – This was a punk rock record, although people probably don’t recognize it as such anymore. Another eddy in the flow of history. Powerful, adventurous and ambitious. I put Horses and Easter on a cassette back in the 90s and let it play over and over again in my car for about a month.
Point of Entry – This is the record that made me a metalhead in the early 80s. For better or worse. Not the best or most significant, but the one that got me in. It lives up to its name.
Fun House – I found this in the 99 cent bin at Record Archive. I didn’t know anything about it, except that I recognized the name from somewhere. I realized weeks later that it was from the Rolling Stone Record Guide, which said not to bother with any of Iggy’s albums, just look for copies of the out-of-print Stooges records, “But only if you thought the Sex Pistols were mellow.”
Uncle Sam – They were a local band in Rochester NY. They made me realize that the bands playing in the local clubs were just as good as the ones on the radio and in the arenas, which opened up a new vista for me.
Fear of a Black Planet – I had rap records before this, going back the The Message, but this grabbed a hold of me and wouldn’t let go. Almost none of my people could stand it, but I played it to death anyway. And realized how strong it’s predecessor was along the way.
Ragged Soul – After a while, I had all the records and I had seen all the bands. There were no more surprises. Rock was dead. Then a band called The Lazy Cowgirls came to town on a Wednesday night. The little writeup in the local music weekly described the singer as Ralph Kramden on acid, so I figured it was up my alley. I liked the show. They were good. The more I thought about it, they were really good, and I made it my mission to find everything the recorded. This wasn’t easy in those days. It took me a few years. But once again, new vistas opened up for me.

I could come up with many more, but that’s my nine.

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Across 106 Street

It started with a simple Rogers-esque tweet from Kin

And as I looked through the photos, I noticed some were at the intersection of Amsterdam and a street named in honor of our very own ds106

So I felt compelled to respond

And the Jim put his little twist on it

referencing the 1972 NYC crime drama. I immediately thought of the Bobby Womack theme song, and wondered if there was a way to make something of it. I don’t have Cogdog-level lyric-writing skills though. But I thought if I could find an instrumental version (YT), I could also do an image search of 106 St. and make a slide show video. Then I remembered that there are tools to turn Google Street View trips into GIFs, like this one. In addition to going down a street, it has an option to do a 360 view from a spot, which sort fits the “across” idea. I found a suitably urban font on Da Font and slapped it all together into a video

Just another day on 106 Street.

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Can it happen?

Online bookclub master Bryan Alexander blogged about It Can’t Happen Here and how it does and doesn’t relate to the present, so I’ll add some personal connections.

On one hand, the novel certainly doesn’t map directly onto the current situation. But on the other hand, trends towards fascism and authoritarianism have been with us for a long time. We may not have a Corpo party, but you could make the case that the Corpos have co-opted both of the parties we have. The above song comes from early 90s alt-rock activists Consolidated, and takes its title from from a 1980 screed by Bertram Gross. The implication is that what can’t happen here has been happening for quite a while. And while we may not have a Corpo militia, we do have militarized law enforcement that has taken aggressive action in response to protests.

And then the day after I finish the book, this came through my Twitter feed:

Which is right out of Buzz Windrip’s campaign platform. The data comes from a survey asking what people would sacrifice for a 10% raise. It indicates to me a sense of desperation, that people feel they really need more money. But while it suggests people don’t value their own vote too highly, the fact that they’re far less willing to give up their children’s right could imply that they think voting is important. They say they won’t stoop to eating Tide Pods, so that’s something.

One thing in the novel that resonates with me is the name of the main character, Doremus. When I was growing up in Rochester, NY, the dean of the local newscasters was Warren Doremus, so it feels like a very appropriate name for a newsman. Another is the title:

I think I was in the ninth grade when I found The Mothers of Invention’s debut album, Freak Out, at the public library. I remember having a WTF fascination with the track, “It Can’t Happen Here.” It’s not something that normal people would sit through willingly, like the Beatles’ Revolution 9, but unlike that one it stuck in my head, so it’s my reference point for the expression. Zappa is saying that the general public didn’t expect that young people across the country would turn into nonconformist hippie freaks. Who could imagine that they would freak out in Minnesota? Who could imagine that they would freak out in the 30s? Given the socio-economic situation of those times, we might expect a freak out.

The decade was marked globally by the Great Depression. In the US, we also had the Dust Bowl. Communists were in power in Russia and had started a revolution in China, and communist parties were active in the US and Europe. Fascism was a reaction to these conditions, most notably in Germany, Italy and Spain. And apparently in the US as well, at least according to USMC Major General Smedley Butler. You also had Huey Long’s populism and William Pelley’s Silver Shirts, so maybe it really could have happened here.

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The book behind the book

Sinclair Lewis’ novel, It Can’t Happen Here, contains numerous references to a fictional book entitled Zero Hour – Over the Top. I thought I’d pull out all the excerpts and put them together here, along with a few thoughts.

“Zero hour” and “over the top” are both phrases from WWI. OED lists the first use of “zero hour” in an NYT article on an ill-fated military operation. “Over the top” comes from WWI trench warfare, referring to soldier coming out of the trenches and up into the battlefield – up into machine gun fire. The title is meant to evoke a sense of patriotism, as the US played a large part in winning the Great War a little less than two decades earlier. But there is also a destructive fatalism about it – it suggests that it is time to jump into the meat grinder. The screenshots below are linked to highlights, so you can click through to see them in context.

Note the contradictions – Washington and Jefferson are old-fashioned, yet the goal is to get back to the Founding Fathers’ principles. But maybe change the whole Constitution. The sense of nativism coupled with a sense of cultural inferiority. The claimed desire to do things legally while also claiming a need to be above the law.

Interesting how family, public interest, and humble delights describe Doremus Jessup. Also how he equates vulnerability with divinity. In describing the Press he’s actually describing himself.

He promotes intolerance and increases poverty through his words and actions, rather than slashing them. He aspires to be an emperor, yet claim kinship to the Common Man.

“Protestingly” implies that he doesn’t want the spotlight that he seeks. He’s also making another claim to divinity.

William Dudley Pelley and his Silver Shirts may have been models for this novel: Who are the real threats to “Liberty, High Wages, and Universal Security?”

He’s describing the identity politics of white supremacy, and calling for sacrifice on the part of the people for the benefit of those in charge.



a misrepresentation – the quote comes from the words of the king of Assyria

He’s saying ordinary folks “can’t handle the truth.”

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One way or another

Some rambling thought from recent readings:

When I used to explore MOOCs, I thought that if your MOOC requires people to watch video, you’re not doing it right. Siemens et al. set them up so participants could choose which content to interact with, so videos were optional. That sense of learner autonomy is what drew me to MOOCs. I think it’s a key component of openness as well. That’s reflected in the vision of personal learning that Downes brought to MOOCs in the first place.

Belshaw reviewed Downes’ talk on Why Personal Learning. I was drawn to his assessment of the Groups vs Networks slide: “…it’s a wider thing than just an approach to learning. It’s an approach to society.” Groups and Networks are subtitled as Collectives and Communities, which is a great bit of wordplay. “Collectives” implies communism, something that’s generally frowned upon here in the US, while community is something that is valued, in word if not in deed. On the other hand the Group model as presented looks a lot like what our society aspires to be. As Belshaw says, “some people want paternalism as it provides a comfort blanket of security.”

Does it have to be one or the other? I like the Network model. Maybe I’m something of a “roaming autodidact.” I do fit the description. But I think people should be empowered to take control of their own learning and education. They may choose the comfort blanket, but they should have the option of casting it off.

Moe discusses the importance of video in MOOCs – “the rich history of educational film needs to be a staple of contemporary course design” – but I don’t think that video should be the sole or primary focus. It doesn’t need to be one way. I don’t think the focus should be on content consumption either, but rather interaction and creation. Kinda like what happens in ds106. Give people the opportunity to find their own ways to document their understanding and express their questions.

Of course some MOOCs aren’t about that. They’d rather “see it all, find out who you call” and see what they can do with that data – the price you pay for paternalism.

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The times they are a-GIFfing

The Internet brought this to my attention the other day. It’s from a Canadian variety series called Quest, back from the days when TV could be experimental. Basically the video has Bob playing in some backwoods cabin for a bunch of mostly disinterested smokers. See the first comment under the video:

“Hey kid, make sure you buss those tables and clean out the grease trap when you’re done ‘changing’ the world'”.

I like the chiaroscuro lighting and the random shots of the observers, so I thought I’d try GIFfing it. I played with masking and coloring a bit – the coloring came out okay, but the masking not so much because the camera isn’t as still as it seems. I guess I got a little carried away.


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Thoughts on some OER FAQs

In advocating for OER on my campus, I’ve run into many misconceptions. I’ve also found a few people who are helping to spread some of these misconceptions. This FAQ is a useful document for addressing some of them.

OER help “to ensure that resources are up-to-date

How up-to-date are commercial textbooks? There is an investment of time and money that goes into revisions and printing new editions, so publishers don’t want to do that any more than necessary. They also have a vested interest in eliminating the market for used books, so there is a financial benefit to updating editions frequently. Faculty can OER whenever they please, due to the Creative Commons permissions. Some may see this as a drawback, if they would rather have someone else be responsible for keeping materials current. I can see benefits to building the updating process into a course though. Students could look to current research, events and issues to see how they intersect with course subject matter, and be charged with proposing revisions. This type of an assignment would have them actively thinking about the relevance of what they’re learning, how they are learning it, and how to get ideas and concepts across to others. Students would gain experience in managing their own learning processes at the some time as they learn the course content.

Can OER be high quality if it is free?

Are commercial textbooks high quality because they’re expensive? What kind of review process do they actually go through? How do we rate quality anyway? What factors are considered important? What matters is student learning and student success. Writing, editing and design will have an impact on that. So will accessibility and cost. I imagine it is relatively easy to compare textbook A to textbook B and decide which is better based on content and presentation. It would be more difficult to determine if textbook A is $100 better than textbook B, or if students would derive $100 more of value from it. Due to CC permissions, OER can be modified to fit the needs of an institution, a department, an instructor, and a group of students. They can be continually modified to improve student success.

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Book clubbing

This morning we had another episode of Jim’s Monogamous Book Club, and a great time was had by all the participants and the one listener. We had a rambling discussion of Jack London, The Iron Heel, and plotted to make it a regular thing.

The book

I think it was in reading about The Twenty Days of Turin that the book came to my attention. Since ds106 is currently looking at post-apocalyptic dystopias, I thought it might be appropriate to take a look at The Iron Heel and how it fits in. It’s been described as possibly the earliest example of dystopian fiction, a pre-apocalyptic proto-dystopia, if you will.

It’s utopian as well, in a way. While the main narrative takes place in the early 20th century, 1912-1932, beginning a few years after London was writing, it also has editorial interjections from a utopian future 700 years later. London gives us his nightmare vision of a near future, and also reflects on it as a distant past. What he doesn’t give us is an kind of picture of what that utopia looks like, or how society got there. On one hand, it makes for a fascinating structure, and on the other, it feels like a cop-out. The narrative of the novel actually ends mid-sentence, as if London didn’t know how to wrap it up or where to go from there. He just stopped, and had his editor from the future provide a closing thought.

Which brings up the question: Is it a good book? It feels like an odd question to ask, since we both invested time in reading it, thinking about it, and discussing it. It makes for interesting discussion, as a product of its time, as a vision (sometimes eerily accurate) of the near future, and for how it is relevant to today’s world. It is also tedious, sometimes pedantic, often unreflective, and lacking in nuance or subtlety. I wondered if London might be making a comment on the vacuousness of the newly-minted True Believer, but apparently he was one himself. As Jim pointed out, the most compelling parts of the story, the Red Virgin and the terrorist organizations, are only mentioned in passing, when they could be worth a novel in themselves.

The book club

Jim and I enjoy these discussions, and we both feel a need to read more, so we talked about making it a regular thing. He suggested doing a book a week, which we sort of did during True Crime, but I thought doing that for a whole year would be Martin Weller type heroics. So we decided on every other week – a book a fortnight. It’s a challenge we can meet. Keeping it up for a whole year is a bit of a commitment in light of everything else we have to do, but it should be a worthy project. In keeping with the themes of The Twenty Days and The Iron Heel, our future plans include Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, Leo Perutz’ St. Peter’s Snow, and The Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler.

And this may tie into an idea I’ve been toying with for a while. I’ve seen a few discussions of canonical graphic novels in the past few years and they all put the same three at the top of the list: Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Maus, all of which come from 1986. Since they’ve all been dissected to death, I’m interested in looking at antecedents. I’m thinking Ronin, V for Vendetta or Saga of the Swamp Thing, and American Flagg!, and as they are all products of the 80s, they should be right up Jim’s alley. And they’re light weight enough so that we could actually get through them in the time frame we’ve given ourselves.

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Kick the Ballistics

The other day a gun lobby spokesperson said that the media love mass shootings. This predictably caused some controversy, but the main point is true: if it bleeds, it leads. Stories of tragedy draw attention, and attention is monetized in advertising. What interested me about the statement was that it is exactly what I often think of the gun lobby. Mass shootings are followed by spike in firearm sales, because some people worry that this time there will be legislation. Mass shootings are like xmas for gun sales.

…the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Tim 6:10)

But the truth is no one loves it when children get murdered. Owners and investors love profits. That doesn’t mean they are particularly happy about the circumstances. The profit motive impacts how they respond. The way news media reports on these tragedies sensationalizes them. It inspires copycats. A more moral course would be to downplay the sensationalism, like they do with reporting on suicides, but that raises the spectre of a loss of market share, and lower profits. Similarly, the firearm industry response to these tragedies is that people should buy more guns. That won’t make people more safe or less tense, and it makes weapons more available to those who would misuse them. Making weapons less easily available would have a negative impact on profits though. For the love of money…

I’m no scholar, but even I knew that was a quote from scripture. The context is interesting. Prior to the verse is an instruction to stay away from snark and polarization, and those who would profit from them. Later in the chapter is a commandment to the rich to share their wealth – a highly polarizing proposition in the US today.

Give me a nickel, brother can you spare a dime
Money can drive some people out of their minds (O’Jays)

Going back to the start, my main takeaway is that I am just as inclined to contribute to polarization as anyone else, apparently. Something I should watch out for. If we want to be healing and unifying, we shouldn’t try to be united against others, but rather united for something. Us, rather than us vs. them. Easier said than done. Anyway, here’s Troop and Levert to kick the ballistics:

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Random thoughts on Polarization and Iron

I’m thinking about Chris Gilliard’s provocation for EngageMOOC in the context of The Iron Heel, which I’m currently reading courtesy of the Internet Archive.

Unfortunately I’ve never read A People’s History, so I’m just now getting the terminological connection to people’s republics, which ties to London’s vector of history. His novel sees the mass of people, the workers, divided, polarized and conquered by the Oligarchy (or plutocracy or 1%). They suffer for centuries following the events of the novel, until the purgatory of the Oligarchy gives way to the utopian Brotherhood of Man. Which also seems to bear a distinct mark of polarization – perhaps London wasn’t as egalitarian as he thought himself.

In The Iron Heel, workers’ unions are pitted against each other. Some are favored and given privileges in exchange for not standing in solidarity with their brethren. I see something similar today in public discourse, where unions, outside of the FOP, are considered lazy, corrupt and parasitic. In my own place of work, we expect administration soon to pit adjuncts against full-timers in order to decertify and break the union. All of which benefits the few over the many.

Gilliard mentions cyberlibertarianism. Will the computer set you free, or does the computer reinforce power structures an hierarchy? Bernes-Lee built the web to connect people to people – potentially unifying and liberating. Zuckerberg blocked off a chunk of the web and made it easy for people to connect with each other, but under his terms and conditions. We can have domains of our own, but it is marginally easier to set up shop in Zuck’s lobster trap.

Lobster trap, CC-BY 2013 by Blondinrikard Fröberg

The view of Silicon Valley as the seat of the technological power, built on the ground of segregation, relates as well, since The Iron Heel treads the very same locale. Maybe London picked the setting because it was his stomping grounds. He wrote this book right after the great earthquake, so I can imagine why dystopia might have been on his mind.

The issue of Citizens United also has a parallel in the novel:

The Plutocracy has all power in its hands to-day. It to-day makes the laws, for it owns the Senate, Congress, the courts, and the state legislatures. And not only that. Behind law must be force to execute the law. To-day the Plutocracy makes the law, and to enforce the law it has at its beck and call the, police, the army, the navy, and, lastly, the militia, which is you, and me, and all of us.

That last reference, to the militia, refers to the Militia Act of 1903, which gave the government the power to draft all able-bodied men aged 17-45. The sort of vulgar display of power suits the unsubtlety of the book. Today, “you, and me, and all of us” are part of surveillance capitalism, a crowd sourced panopticon working in conjunction with mobilized armies of trolls, bots and sockpuppets to manage the people. We’ve had no shortage of vulgar displays, especially over past year, but that’s not where power exercises control.

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