Finals Week Strangers

If you’ve taken a large college class, you’ve likely experienced the situation where your class looks empty for most of the term, but then, all of a sudden, at the final exam, the lecture hall is full again.

Back in December, I kvetched back about how many of my students in Queens College classes fail, and I aimed to take measures to improve the success (failure?) rate. One such measure was to require students to actually attend class. Here is what I was thinking about at the time:

For the new year, I am implementing a few new policies at Queens College to help make clear that attending class and participating in the day-to-day assignments, not just the written ones that count towards their final grade, is essential in succeeding in college and beyond.

One step is to implement two new attendance policies:

  1. Negative reinforcement: Students may not miss more than four weeks of class for any reason.
  2. Positive reinforcement: Students attending more than 12 weeks of class will receive a half-grade bonus to their final grade.

And that is in fact what I did. This past spring semester, in each of my syllabi at Queens College, I wrote:

For in-person classes, regular attendance is required. Attend twelve or more classes and receive five bonus points added to your final grade. Students missing more than four classes will not be permitted to take the final exam.

For hybrid courses, regular attendance is required. Attend seven or more classes and receive five bonus points added to your final grade. Students missing more than three classes will not be permitted to take the final exam.

This policy does not apply to online courses.

It might have worked, at least a little bit. In my Media Technologies class this semester, there was only one absentee student who showed up to take the exam. That student also walked in thirty minutes late to the final, something that the student did for the midterm exam. I directed that student to the written policy from the syllabus, and I did not permit that student to take the exam. Failing that student seemed like the right thing to do as that student’s absenteeism really did warrant retaking the class.

However, the 20% rule that I bemoaned in December emerged in another way. In my Media Criticism class, I added a policy that each student must meet with me—either in person or through an online call—over a two-week period to discuss his/her draft for the two written essays due in that class. Many flaunted the policy, and when it came time for them to submit their final drafts, I alerted them that I would not accept them, as stated in the policy on the syllabus.

Alas, just after the midterm exam, about 20% of the students enrolled in the class dropped because of this policy, suggesting that we as teachers are powerless against the larger social forces that CUNY students face.

ABC No Rio Print Shop in Exile, in Bushwick

ABC No Rio, a venerable arts and activism space in the Lower East Side, had been located in an abandoned tenement building at 156 Rivington Street since the early 1980s. In the 2000s, New York City sold the building and its land for a dollar on the condition that it renovate its building. Since then, the organization had raised funds and planned for a new building, designed by local architect Paul Castrucci.

In 2016, after its final art show, ABC No Rio left its space in 2016, and since then, the building has been demolished and the two-year construction project has yet to begin.

A photograph of the print shop at ABC No Rio’s building on Rivington Street.

Although I went to a screening that a friend produced around 2003, I became a regular user around 2008 when I started using the print shop to make shirts for my softball teams. The learning curve was steep and over the years, a lot of what I learned about printing shirts follows the DIY, punk-rock approach to printing than what most screen printers do. For example, I have almost never used a conveyer belt dryer because I print with water-based inks. I can hang the shirts on a line and allow them to air dry and cure with a trouser press.

My “technique” for drying water-based screen-printed inks.

When ABC No Rio closed, a lot of the activities stopped or relocated to other spaces. The all-ages Saturday matinee punk/hardcore shows appeared to have ceased, but the zine library moved down the street to the Clemente Soto Velez on Suffolk Street. About a year ago, the print shop opened a location in a basement on Evergreen Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn. This is just a few miles from where I live—and not far from Megan’s apartment—in an area that resembles what the Lower East Side was like a generation ago.

Entering the new space is a bit more inviting than one at the old location. The Rivington Street location was a pretty intimidating. You’d first encounter a decrepit tenement building and would have to navigate up three flights of the creekyiest steps you’ve ever climbed. One friend who went with me remarked how he felt he was in an episode of Law and Order at the moment when someone discovers a dead body. The new space, on the other hand, is hard to miss from the street and has some inviting printed material.

Last night, I went to the space and found a lot of the old space had been imported to this new space. The light exposure unit from the old space was there, bearing the face of someone that looks like Iggy Pop. Also, because this print shop espouses the DIY ethos, books and bricks are used to press the artwork against the screen. Close observers who used the old space will recognize the Learning Windows NT 4 book and copies of the Manhattan Yellow Pages wrapped in packing tape.

Another familiar item was the the four-color press, which was seated among similar detritus that was a feature of the old space.

And since this is a print shop that runs on fees from users, they also printed shirts to sell.

Yes, I bought one.

I didn’t have anything to print or a screen to burn, but it was nice to say hi to the veteran volunteer Garry and a regular user, Hardcore Shawn, who has been learning from Garry and has embraced discharge printing as I have. There was, sadly, no sign o Ray or Soccoro, the other volunteers at the print shop. I will certainly be back when I do have something.

The ABC No Rio Print Shop in Exile is located at 519 Evergreen Avenue, in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and is open Thursdays from 6:00–11:00 PM. Get the early and bring cash.

My Revised Online Summer Intensive Course

This summer, I’m teaching two online courses at CUNY Queens College.

  1. Media Technologies, between June 4 and June 27
  2. Contemporary Media, between July 2 and July 26

I’m following a similar structure from the past, which I have described before on this site. Each course includes twelve modules, and for each module students will have to complete the following:

  • read an assigned chapter from the textbook
  • watch a video lecture of a narrated slideshow
  • take an online quiz consisting of objective questions

After four modules, students will take an exam consisting of subjective questions that they will have five days to complete.

In the past, I used to release module consisting of a video lecture and a quiz for a course topic and would have them due the following day. But having read a blog post by Anastasia Salter about “Rethinking the Online Summer Intensive,” I rethought my own online summer intensive courses. I didn’t quite go as far as Salter who released all the modules at the beginning of the course. Instead, I wanted to strike a balance between giving students the flexibility of completing work on their own schedule but also provide some structure where students won’t feel overwhelmed.

I kept the daily release schedule but changed the daily deadlines for quizzes to a weekly one. Everyday between Tuesday and Friday, I will post a recorded lecture and a quiz. But instead of making them due the following day, I’m providing students some flexibility and allowing them to submit the four quizzes by Monday night. That gives students at least three days to complete their quizzes. They can either keep apace completing a quiz per day or they can procrastinate and binge the weeks’ material.

And I’m also setting up twice-weekly office hours via Google Meet, which I’ve only used once, but I think is a tremendous improvement over Google Hangouts.

I didn’t implement her other changes, such as the 100-point grading scale for the whole semester. I understand the appeal of a “progress bar,” but how would I account for getting ten quizzes and three exams to add up to 100 points? That would require granting students four points for a quiz of at least ten questions.

MoviePass and The “Robin Hood” Economy

Kevin Roose wrote in the New York Times about something that I pointed out a while ago, albeit from the perspective of the consumer. It’s a good time to take advantage of companies swimming in venture capital money to subsidize your life.

Roose notes, albeit hyperbolically, that the “entire economy” works like MoviePass. In that model, you pay a small monthly fee and get to watch a movie at a movie theater, once a day. It’s a great deal if you’re a consumer. But what seems different about MoviePass than other companies is that seemingly everybody scrutinized that business model. “How are they going to make money?,” is a question that I often get whenever I try to refer people to MoviePass. (Sign up through this link, and MoviePass gets a little more unprofitable because you’ll get a free month of movies.)

Roose correctly tells us that simple arithmetic dictates that at one time, “in order to survive, businesses had to sell goods or services above cost.” MoviePass—or any other company—can’t survive much less thrive by selling products below cost forever. But what Roose misses is that this is not unique to our era. The price-over-cost model is not, as Roose writes, “so 20th century.” We saw companies giving things away in exchange for user growth in the dot-com era. I reminisced about the dot-com era when I was writing about the online wholesale vendor Boxed.

Back in the late 1990s, there were a bunch of dot-com companies that were basically giving away the store in order to show sales growth. [Boxed] seems like one of those: a startup outfit that’s trying to rack up sales, even at a loss, to show their investors that they should keep investing.

Indeed, Roose explains why so there are so many unprofitable companies. He explains:

The rise in unprofitable companies is partly the result of growth in the technology and biotech sectors, where companies tend to lose money for years as they spend on customer acquisition and research and development, Mr. Ritter said. But it also reflects the willingness of shareholders and deep-pocketed private investors to keep fast-growing upstarts afloat long enough to conquer a potential “winner-take-all” market. You should take advantage and stock up on toilet paper before the bubble bursts.

This is like Robin Hood giving us free stuff at the expense of rich venture capital firms. We as consumers should take advantage of that, and I’m sure millions of us have. Have you sign up for a meal kit service and had cheap meals delivered to your home? And after you burned through the sign-up credit, did you sign up with another meal kit service? Great. Keep that up, and don’t forget to get one for your dog, too.

Roose sounds alarmist about the impending doom that will befall an economy that is so heavily based on future user growth. He’s right. This can’t keep up forever. As we’ve seen multiple times in our lives, after all, bubbles like these burst. And the bigger it gets, the more spectacular the crash will be.

In the meantime, it’s a party for us consumers. Even Roose scored a deal through, Beepi, the defunct used car marketplace that shut down two years ago. He revels that the company lasted long enough for him to buy “a car through the service for thousands of dollars less than its market value. Thanks, venture capitalists!” I’m with him on this one. Let the rich VC douchebags fund our movies, our meals, our pet’s meals, and our bulk toilet paper purchases. This won’t last forever so stock up and sign up for every money losing service you can.

And don’t forget to sign up through your friends’ referral links. They deserve more free stuff, too!

Update: There is of course one glaring exception to this model. That is Uber and the “ridesharing” industry. Last year, Uber lost $4.5 billion dollars subsidizing cheap rides for users, but unlike other startups here, it also depressed the wages of its drivers. For those who depend on these wages for their livelihoods, it can lead to tragic outcomes.

ATM without an ATM Card

Over the last few months, I’ve seen several Chase ATMs sporting a Cardless NFC logo just to the right of the keypad. Today, I noticed that an ATM in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village looked a little different than it did before. The screen displayed a similar “Cardless Access” logo, suggesting that the cardless feature had gone live. Excited to avoid fishing my Chase debit card out of my wallet, I decided to try and withdraw cash from this ATM without my ATM card.

I pulled out my phone and selected my Chase debit card from the Apple Wallet. I then placed the phone a few inches above the Cardless logo on the ATM and authenticated with TouchID. And then voila, the ATM allowed me to proceed without my debit card.

Everything else works like it always does. I still had to enter my PIN, and I still had the option to receive $5 bills for my cash withdrawal. Because I didn’t have to leave my card in the card slot, I didn’t have to take the card to retrieve my cash. Instead, the machine just let me take the cash.

I have left my ATM card in more than one ATM before. Before most ATMs used the chip on the card, I got accustomed to dipping my card into the slot and then pulling it out. On at least two occasions, I used machines that kept the card until I took the cash. The dip-and-pull ATMs trained me that retrieving my cash was the last step of the transaction. But at these strange ATMs, I pulled my cash and left the ATM vestibule, leaving behind my debit card.

Having fallen victim to such carelessness at least twice, I’m glad to see this technology will spare me from doing this in the future.

Students Charge Not Their Computers or Their Phones, but Their Vape Pens

In almost every college classroom, there’s some pretty stiff competition for the power outlets. Students need to charge their notebook computers and, of course, their smartphones. But last night, I saw a new device charging in one of my classrooms. It was a vape pen.

Vape pen charging in a classroom at Queens College, Kiely Hall, third floor

While I didn’t ask the class whose pen this was, I did try to shame its owner by snapping a photo and indicating that I was posting this on the Internet.

I wonder, though, if this will be the next class of digital distractions that we teachers have to confront in the classroom. Not just that they use an otherwise unused outlet to charge a vape pen, but when they start vaping. Because vaping is as natural to them as having a touchscreen device at their fingertips.

Barbara Ehrenreich on Our Obsession with Aging

Earlier this week on WNYC’s newish program, Midday on WNYC, Barbara Ehrenreich spoke with guest host Kai Wright about her new book Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. (Buy through this link and I’ll get a commission, or get it from her website.)

There were a lot of great insights into this interview, especially her critiques of medical testing, wellness, fitness, and mindfulness that mirrored a lot of Michel Foucault’s work, particularly that which deals with surveillance, discipline and what he calls “discourse,” knowledge that is produced by a power structure. Here are a few takeaways from the interview:

  • Ehrenreich characterizes the escalation of medical testing to surveillance over the body, bringing to mind Foucault’s critical history of the panopticon as a technology of surveillance.
  • Ehrenreich describes the dedication to fitness as a kind of control one exercises (ha!) over the body. In an age when people feel powerless over various social and economic conditions, exercise acts as a mechanism to maintain a sense of power.
  • Ehrenreich argues that the contemporary obsession with wellness can function in two ways, largely dependent on economic class.
    1. For the working class, it acts as a form of Taylorist surveillance for the employer to manage the employee’s health. This is done in the name of reducing health insurance payouts but in effect trains the employee to shape his or her behavior.
    2. For the upper class, wellness is a form of conspicuous consumption, where rich people can show off their commitment to fitness through expensive workout regiments and pricey foods and nutritional practices. While Ehrenreich illustrates this trend with a wellness coach who advocates eating pearls to combat aging. I immediately thought of the boutique gyms that pepper affluent cities and communities that were the subject of a recent Washington Post article. The article describes a diversity problem—a disproportionate number of young, rich, and white people in an otherwise demographically diverse cities—at expensive, boutique gyms. However, I think that the diversity problem is largely due to the uneven distribution of wealth, especially among younger people who have ascended economically since the Great Recession of the last decade. Hence, these gyms function as a token of affluence and commitment to health.
      *Ehrenreich also critiques the recent surge of mindfulness as Silicon Valley’s solution to the problem they created with digital devices and their distracting platforms. What began as a spiritual ritual practiced by Buddhists has been emptied of any religious properties and reduced to an app on a smartphone or Apple Watch.

I do quibble with one of her suggestions: to Google your health questions and add a few keywords such as “controversy” or “evidence based.” I think one of the reasons that so many people have become followers and practitioners of junk science is because of this very practice. On the Internet, good information and quack-pot theories are almost indistinguishable, especially to many who lack the training or experience in doing research.

Overall, however, I do appreciate her larger message that I would paraphrase as this: life is too short to worry about death.

A Lot Has Changed at KCSB, A Lot Has Remained the Same

The older I get, the quicker time passes, and it’s quite unbelievable to think that it’s been over twenty-three years since I first went to an informational meeting to began doing a radio program on KCSB. I started as a trainee on the closed-circuit AM station in 1994, moved up to an on-air program on the FM-broadcast station and also worked as the publications director in 1995, and was then elected general manager of the station in 1996. Having peaked early in life, I began my steady decline including being less involved with the radio station. After 1997, I remained an active volunteer and still did my radio show, Die Social Misfit, but I ultimately left the station around 1999. I passed on the tape archives of my last program to a friend. I don’t know if she still has them.

A lot has changed in the twenty-or-so years since I left KCSB. In the 2014 KCSB video made Film and Media 103 students, I noticed that some visible changes that have occurred over the years. Some things I noticed include:

  • a new mixing console in the FM control room, although it looks like the same microphones we had in my day.
  • a new computer system that probably does more than just play electronic CARTs, which was why we installed computers in the control rooms in the first place.
  • a new title for the internal music director, who is now called the “Librarian.”
  • a newish KCSB advisor named Marta Ulvaeus. I guess she was around before Ted Coe took the reigns.
  • new paint and new stickers on the walls.

I last visited in 2008, when the Console-ing Passions TV studies conference was held at UCSB, so it’s possible that many of these “new” improvements are themselves over a decade old.

Yet, there are somethings that remain unchanged. In the video, KJUC manager Madeline Kardos references how she spends downtime at the radio station. I did the same. As a young adult, I gravitated towards the radio station offices after I finished classes and after I finished working. It was a great gathering place for other people, and I found a nurturing community there. It was also, in an age before smartphones, a place to read and write emails. I’m sure there are tons of places like that on every college campus, and I’m glad that KCSB was there for me during those years.

Another thing that appears unchanged about KCSB is its commitment to diversity and eclecticism. Cutting my teeth at KCSB was a blessing for me because it made me curious about what else there might be out there: be it for music, TV shows, films, etc. It is important not only for the young people who do programs at the station but also for listeners in a rapidly gentrifying and homogenizing Santa Barbara–area.

Finally, another thing about KCSB hasn’t changed is the phone number for the request line. There’s something musical about “893-2424,” and anyone who had a radio program will have recited that phone number hundreds, if not thousands, of times.

I “Quant” Believe I’m Monitoring My Sleep, and It’s Working

One unanticipated consequence of upgrading to an Apple Watch Series 3 is that I’ve been monitoring my sleep. That’s right: I am the same data grouch who bemoaned the quantified life, and here I am, tracking the amount of time I sleep, measuring the “quality” of my sleep, and comparing my sleeping heart rate from one day to the next. What’s wrong with me?!?

Part of this new regiment started when I upgraded to a new Apple Watch. The Series 3 offers a much improved battery compared to my old Series 0. However, I also started monitoring my sleep because, a year ago, I had downloaded a sleep-tracking app called Auto Sleep. The app wasn’t useful on my Series 0 because the battery would die in the middle of the night, and ironically, the watch itself would wake me up when I would toss and turn in bed. There were several occasions where the watch strap or the chassis itself would rub against my face, interrupt my sleep.

I was also curious of whether my sleeping habits were in need of some help. Like most people, it is not unusual for me to become tired in the middle of the day. Fortunately, my working conditions allow me to often remedy that with a quick coffee nap. I think that’s the only part of owning a car I miss: lunchtime naps in the parking lot.

Although I have had the speedy Series 3 with its capacious battery for over a month, I’ve only regularly started tracking my sleep over the last few weeks. Here’s what I’ve learned:

The first thing that I noticed that I don’t get anywhere nearly as much sleep as I thought I did. I discovered that I spend about an hour in bed awake each night, oftentimes much more than that. Prior to this sleep-tracking experiment, I would reason that if I go to bed around midnight and wake up about 7:00, I got a respectable seven hours of sleep. Wrong! The Auto Sleep app reports that I get closer to five hours of sleep on such nights. This is because I wake up multiple times in the middle of night: a bathroom break here, a neighbor or roommate making a sharp noise, a pesky cat asking for a predawn snack. The time I lie awake in bed likely explains why I get drowsy in the middle of the day.

Since then, I started to budget over eight hours in bed to get a respectable amount of sleep—about seven hours—each night. I can now appreciate the wisdom of Max Richter’s Sleep album, a collection of 204 songs that together last 8 hours and 23 minutes. The notes guarantee eight hours of sleep, and clearly count on some degree of sleeplessness during that stretch. I tried it but, as I tossed and turned, I kept bumping into my iPad that I had foolishly propped on a pillow next to my head.

A second discovery I made was that my average heart rate while sleeping is noticeably affected by two factors: whether I’ve been getting enough restful sleep over the past several days and whether I drank even a moderate amount of alcohol.

Observing the first factor was a revelation. I saw my sleeping heart rate drop from as high 78 bpm at the beginning of a restful-night streak to something in the low 60s.

However, last Wednesday, March 21, during what appears to have been the final Nor’easter of March 2018, I walked to the local brewery to stave off cabin fever and to taste some new IPAs. I nursed four pints over a four-hour period, but that was enough to wreck my sleep. Auto Sleep rated that night’s sleep with a 58% recharge rating, whereas I had scored something closer to 90% over the past three days. My average heart rate on that stormy, intemperate night was 79 bpm, which is similar to my heart rate while I sit at this desk and type, whereas my heart rate was 12-13 beats slower during the previous three nights. Finally, it had a lingering effect over the next two nights: my recharge rating was closer to 80%. It wouldn’t be until two more nights that I again scored a recharge rating of at least 90%.

The effects of nursing four pints of IPA over four hours on my sleep were pretty hard and lingered for a couple of days.

A third revelation from this whole sleep-monitoring exercise is that I have to work harder to get enough sleep. That defies my own sense of logic. But working hard to sleep more is something I can get behind.

Finally, I have been noticing an overall positive effect on my energy. I haven’t needed my customary coffee nap after getting a few consecutive nights of quality sleep. I don’t know if it’s a placebo effect, but just the other day, I tried to take a quick lunchtime nap. I couldn’t do it. I was wide awake, and instead, I started composing a draft for this post.

The Looming Tower, Stormy Daniels, What Susan Douglas Called “the Turn Within”

In the first episodes of the Looming Tower, the Hulu original series based on a book by the same name, there’s a reference to the public being distracted by the Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinski sex scandal in 1998. This was despite Al Qaeda having attacked two overseas American sites that same year. The series uses the coverage of the scandal as a metaphor for the turf wars between three parties: the CIA, and between the Washington and the New York field offices of the FBI. The three units’ failure to cooperate in the aftermath of these attacks outside the US in 1998 were contributing factors in the authorities’ failure to prevent the attacks within the US on September 11, 2001.

Just as the public was distracted, breathlessly following the presidential sex scandal, all of us Americans took our eyes off the proverbial ball. Instead of paying attention to a terrorist attack against the United States, largely because it was on foreign soil, we were obsessing over the details of, as one character in The Looming Tower quips, “a cum stain on a dress.”

American broadcast historian Susan Douglas made a similar point about the American public aftermath of the September 11th attacks. In 2006, she wrote in “The Turn Within: The Irony of Technology in a Globalized World” that while American isolationism is nothing new…it is striking that during this particular period, when technological capabilities and geopolitical exigencies should have interacted to expand America’s global vision, just the opposite occurred.” She terms this the “turn within.”

One can make the same argument today. The only time most Americans see a foreign place represented is, perhaps, in the Instagram posts of our friends, who shared some stylized snaps and stories of their trips to whatever place they went to, what remote terrain they encountered, and what exotics snacks they ingested.

And that brings me to the just-aired 60 Minutes interview with Stephanie Clifford, more widely known “Stormy Daniels.” I agree that this scandal is more about the salacious details over an extramarital affair between a then-TV celebrity and a porn actress—it is also about abuse of power in trying to silence her during the 2016 presidential campaign. It further begs the question whether did this patten of behavior continued against others after Trump assumed the presidency.

News coverage such as this comes at the expense of reporting on other things, such as what the Trump Administration is doing with regards to foreign policy. In the last month, the Trump Administration’s top diplomat and its national security advisor were replaced by two hawkish ideologues—Tea Party nationalist Mike Pompello and right-wing warmonger John Bolton. As tensions are high between the US and several other nuclear states—Russia, China, North Korea—it would be great if we could learn more about what elevating these two men to such high positions might mean. It would also be great if we had a clue about where else we might face a potential conflict in the future.

Then again, we Americans might just satisfy ourselves with surveiling and harrassing our friends on social media.