Saturday, August 31, 2019

Random Thoughts of a Student, Again

Having retired from teaching at the university, I have now returned as a student, seeking a degree in a field in which I have no experience, little talent, and no expectations that this new degree will ever be even remotely profitable.  I am now a freshman in Art History. 

Two thousand and ten years ago, a guy named Virgil said, “Happy is he who can discover the causes of things.”

Going back to school makes me as happy as a tornado in a trailer park! I love the discussions, the excuse to buy and read new books, and the exploration of virgin intellectual territory?  I  just generally like being back in a classroom without the responsibility of being the teacher and while I’m genuinely having fun, there are a few things about being back on campus that stand out and make me wonder.

The following are just a few of the random thoughts I have had during the last two weeks at Enema U:

—Where are all the other retired people?  In almost every class that I taught, there were a sizable number of non-traditional students (that’s educationalese for ‘old farts’).  There seem to be relatively few in my art classes.  Perhaps the people with artistic talent have already taken these courses and those without any talent—like me—are generally smart enough not to try.

—For the zillionth time, I went to the library and discovered that they did not have what is considered to be a standard reference book.  There are whole fields where I own more books than this damn library has.  What the hell are the library people spending the money on?  The library now sports a coffee shop, lots of group study room, and luxurious office spaces, yet it  seems to be canceling subscriptions to journals at a record pace.  Who the hell is running this shit show?

Universities used to brag about their libraries.  At Enema U, they seem to be apologizing for having one.  Periodically, this state has referendums on education, usually for erecting new buildings.  I have a modest referendum proposal that would immediately improve education:

At any educational facility funded by the state, the total budget for playing football cannot exceed half the amount spent on the library.

In the last two weeks at school, I have heard not a single student or faculty member mention football, but several have complained about the library.  By contrast, the Chancellor and Provost—affectionately known as Moose and Squirrel, have sent several emails about athletics and not one about the library.

—I have heard students complaining about a few things besides the cost of tuition.  There is a problem with parking and the cafeteria food is horrible.  In both cases, the university tends to treat the students as a seam of ore that has to be strip-mined.  The company that has been awarded an exclusive right to sell food on campus is best known for its dining facilities at airports and prisons, neither of which is noted for fine dining since they all use the same cookbook, “Fifty Shades of Gruel”.

The students hate the cafeterias, the university responds by requiring freshmen to live on campus.  It doesn’t take a genius to envision that such tactics will further hurt the declining student recruitment.

If you mention the problems of parking to any administrator, I guarantee that the answer will be:  “When I went to the University of Who Gives a Fuck, we had to park in a different county, then walk uphill in the snow to campus,” says the administrator that had actually gone to a small Ivy League college with ample student housing in a town with a subway system. 

I have never yet met a university administrator smart enough to realize that you never win an argument about customer satisfaction.  If the majority of students think a situation is a problem, it is.  And students will increasingly go to universities that understand this.

—Students are loud.  If I can hear the music coming out of your earbuds from ten feet away, the obvious hearing loss is the least of your problems—You may have brain damage.

And what the hell is going on with all the women in lace-up combat boots?  Over the last half century, I have broken both ankles and one knee.  I have had six different operations on one leg and spent more than a little time using a cane or crutches.   Yet, somehow, I can still walk down a hallway outside a classroom without sounding like a crippled Clydesdale crossing a wooden bridge.

 —Don’t you just hate it when you are posting on Facebook and you are suddenly rudely interrupted by a jogger bouncing off your windshield?  Well, this has never actually happened to me, but it must happen frequently on campus.  Several times a day I see someone walking across campus totally unaware of anything around them except their phones.  Naturally, I go and stand in front of them. 

There are students who check their phones every five minutes, even during class.  I can’t help but wonder if they do that during sex.

Maybe it is because I am taking art classes, but all morning I have been trying to imagine a Norman Rockwell painting of a slack-jawed youth of today staring into an iPad.  Seems impossible.

—Once again, I am forced to admire the work ethic of adjunct professors who frequently labor like Dickensian orphans.  They work for less than minimum wage, are given no benefits, have absolutely no job security, and are treated by the tenured faculty as if they were lepers on fire.  Yet, despite all that, adjunct professors work harder than ugly strippers.

If the university administrators worked half as hard as the adjunct professors, the university would be far better off.  Hell, if we paid the legion of administrators the same kind of salaries as the adjuncts, they could afford to have a real library.

—Why hasn’t someone sat down with all of the students and objectively discussed the possibility of their majors ever leading to a job?  There are way too many students seeking careers in fields with no possibility of employment.  If you are one of the 40 choral music majors at a state agricultural school, someone should tell you that there was not a single person in that field hired anywhere in this state in the last two years. 

There are far too many people seeking degrees that all but guarantee they will never be employed in their field of study.  Outside of academia, the chances of someone with a degree in Gender Studies getting hired in that field is roughly the same as the chances of an alchemist being hired by Dow Chemical.

Total student debt is now a staggering $1.5 trillion dollars.  And since the student loan business was nationalized by the Obama administration, these debts are carried by the Federal Government, meaning that students cannot default on these loans even through bankruptcy.   With the willing and eager aid of universities, almost any student instantly qualifies for loans that will prove to be impossible to repay.

In the last twenty years, the cost of textbooks has doubled, as did the amount of debts owed by students.  At the same time, universities are cutting the number of classes offered and utilizing low-cost online education that has yet to be proven effective. 

If greedy universities help young students receive huge loans to pursue majors in fields where any career is highly unlikely, that is a scam.  The least the administration could do—short of cutting the fat out of a bloated budget—is to tell the kids the odds of the slot machine paying off.

If we think colleges are overly expensive—and they certainly are—just wait until they are free.

Oh, what do I know?  I’m just a “non-traditional” student wandering the campus taking classes for the fun of it.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Alamo and Movies

Making a movie about the Alamo has always been very difficult.  First, the director has to ignore all the of the facts of the real story, for no one wants to watch a movie in which the heroes are fighting primarily for the right to own slaves.  

Yes:  While the defenders of the Alamo had many grievances, their primary concern was the government of Santa Ana was enforcing the Mexican law that outlawed slavery.  At the time of the battle, Stephen Austin was in Mexico trying to secure an extension to the ten-year indentured servitude that Texas had been granted in an effort to slowly end slavery.  Had Austin been successful, it is extremely doubtful that the Battle of the Alamo would ever have occurred.

So, the director of every Alamo movie has to ignore the fact that the defenders may not have been….well....the good guys.  This still leaves the small problem of putting 185 men inside an adobe fort for twelve days (during which absolutely nothing, important or unimportant, happens), followed by a swift conclusion (the outcome of which every moviegoer already knows and expects).  It doesn't help that the actual battle was brief and was fought in the dark, an hour before sunrise.

These problems are why the vast majority of the many, many movies about the Alamo filmed over the last century have been economic failures.  Even John Wayne’s massive epic was both a critical and economic flop.  Only Walt Disney was able to really make a profit with a movie made over six decades ago.  The most recent release, produced by Ron Howard and starring Billy Bob Thornton, lost $146 million.  

None of the movies tells us very much about the real Alamo, but they do tell us something very real about who the viewers were and what they would pay to see. 

Martyrs of the Alamo (1915).  Produced by D. W. Griffith, this is almost a duplicate of Birth of a Nation, which came out the same year.  Produced during the First World War, the theme is very easy to understand:  Mexico has lured American settlers to Texas, promising them the freedom of a republican form of government.  The idyllic life of the pilgrims is shattered when Santa Ana seizes power as a dictator.  

In case there was any doubt that the Mexican President is evil incarnate, the intertitle tells us he is "An inveterate drug fiend, the Dictator of Mexico was also famous for his shameful orgies." (Intertitles are the explicatory cards used between scenes in silent films to further the story.)

Don’t watch this movie, watch the remake:  Mel Gibson in Braveheart follows the same plot.  The good townspeople are willing to put up with some abuse from the foreign army occupying their land, but finally rebel when the evil soldiers abuse their women.  Just like in Birth of a Nation, the brave men must use violence to defend the honor of their women.  

This leads us to the only obvious conclusion:  D. W. Griffith must have been the most sexually insecure man in the nation.

Of the Alamo, you will learn that every single defender of the Alamo wore a coonskin cap, that one of the slaves was Douglas Fairbanks in blackface, and that the real hero of the Alamo was “Silent” Smith, who escaped from the Alamo in a secret passageway that for some reason none of the other defenders could use.  

Ignoring the sexual insecurities of Griffith, the movie fits in well with America’s views about the war being fought in Europe, a war against tyranny and fight to make democracy safe.  

Heroes of the Alamo (1937). Unique among all of the Alamo movies, this film centers around Captain Dickinson and his wife, almost ignoring the Bowie, Crockett, and Travis who are the heroes of most of the other movies about the Alamo.  The Dickinsons are good honest settlers who who are being ignored by an evil dictator who is unconcerned with the needs of the simple farmers who make up Texas.  

The settlers are simple people, striving to make a living despite the actions of an uncaring and distant government—a message that was easily accepted by a hungry nation during the Great Depression. 

With very little action until the last scenes, Heroes of the Alamo seems to drag endlessly with long scenes of dialog.  The studio seems to have simply used the entire cast of a nearby western movie to create this movie, substituting muskets for the Winchesters.  This is the only Alamo movie in which you are likely to find the settlers using covered wagons.

Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier (1955).   This is probably the most widely seen version of the Alamo movies and is arguably the most profitable of all the Disney movies.  If asked, most people still believe that Davy Crockett died at the Alamo swinging his favorite rifle, Betsy, as depicted by Fess Parker in this movie.  

Filmed during the height of the Cold War, this is a movie about an independent man, fighting for what he believes is right, fighting for a cause even though he knows the odds are hopeless.  The men who died at the Alamo are fighting for a cause greater than themselves.

The Alamo (1960) This was John Wayne’s masterpiece, and it provides ample evidence for why he is remembered as an actor and not as a director.  While the set and the costumes of the Mexican army are fairly accurate, there are almost no words to express how dreadfully horrible the plot is.  

I wish I could ask John Wayne why he decided that the movie should end with his character, Davy Crockett, blowing up the Alamo Chapel after the battle is lost.  Since the chapel is the only part of the old fort actually still standing….It just seems odd.

Wayne’s Alamo is a jingoistic call to arms, where the defenders are the epitome of all that it means to be an American man, fighting against injustices at any cost.  The only slave here belongs to Jim Bowie, who magnanimously grants his freedom just before the final battle.  Predictably, the slave chooses to stay and die with his former master.  In reality, Bowie did not free his slave, who survived the battle (remember, the Mexican Army was in Texas to free the slaves), and wisely chose to avoid talking about the true events of the battle for the rest of his life.

The Alamo (2004).  This is the most recent film version of the Alamo story and while the critics hated it (and it lost an enormous amount of money), it is my favorite...if only because it is still the most historically accurate of the movies.  Sadly, since we are talking about Hollywood movies, this is an honor akin to being the world’s tallest midget.   

There are several indications that the movie wanted to be accurate.  Slavery and indentured service contracts are mentioned, however briefly.  Obviously, sometime during filming, there must have been a dawning realization that overturning the cherished Texas myths might prove to be financial suicide.  Nevertheless, this movie may be as close to an accurate account as we are likely to ever see.

In the vast majority of Alamo movies, the ending is usually the death of Crockett, and this movie is no exception.  Throughout the movie, Billy Bob Thornton’s character is trying to come to grips with living a normal life while his public persona has grown to mythic proportions.  
Whenever Crockett’s coonskin cap is shown, this is the signal that Crockett is confronting the dichotomy of his two identities.

Like Crockett, I, too, have a conflict. As a Texan, I was brought up hearing about the heroic defenders of the Alamo, and I have made countless trips through the old mission.  While I love the story—I do own countless books and almost a dozen different movie versions about the battle—I long to see just one historically accurate version in a movie.

But, if such a movie is ever released, I'm pretty sure I’ll never be able to see it in Texas.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Drafting and the Three Laws of Engineering

While in college, I took a lot of drafting classes, since drafting was a requirement at the time for engineering students.  This was long before AutoCAD, back in the archaic days of pencils, T-squares, and paper.  Today, that old-fashioned method of drafting belongs on that long list of archaic skills only practiced by senior citizens, such as cursive writing, the ability to dial a rotary phone, map folding, and simple manners. 

Previously, I have written about working for Peden Iron and Steel, the giant industrial supply house.  What I did not mention in that story was that I was originally hired as a draftsman.  The company advertised for a draftsman with no professional experience necessary (with a salary that no experienced draftsman would have even considered).  I applied and was immediately hired.

Peden was one of the largest steel service centers in the world and it had just purchased a new toy, a plasma cutter, capable of cutting steel plate up to eight inches thick.  Called the ‘Dragon’, it could cut out eight irregular shapes at the same time with the aid of an ‘electric eye’ that would trace patterns drawn on paper.  My job was to create the patterns.

Peden had just landed a new account with a company that manufactured truck trailers requiring a lot of custom parts.  I met with the designer at the truck company, along with the manufacturer of the Dragon, and we agreed on a scale for the drawings, pencil width, darkness, and so forth. 

Prior to my being hired, Peden had gone to an industrial engineering supply house and bought an outrageous amount of drafting supplies.  Besides a huge desk, I had more equipment than I knew what to do with—far more supplies than found at the university drafting labs.  Since the desk was so large, they had given me a corner of the office used by the secretary of the company’s president.

Though the Dragon needed only a top view, I went ahead and carefully prepared the orthographic drawings like I had been taught at the university, with front, top, and side views and a 3-D representation of the finished piece.  Every line and all the angles were measured and remeasured to be within the design specs of the engineer form the trailer company provided.  In the bottom right of the drawing, I carefully labeled the part number, the company name, and the name of the distinguished draftsman who had created such a beautiful drawing.

Each drawing was a masterpiece, if for no other reason than I made each drawing a dozen times.  The people who had hired me had no idea how long it took to create one of those drawings, and had vastly overestimated how long it would take me to do the work.  At most, they needed two new drawings a day—which took less than a half hour each, so the rest of the day I worked on my homework, and tried my best to look busy by redoing previous drawings. 

The company president, going in and out of his secretary’s office, saw me at least a dozen times a day, and I was determined not to look idle.  This was probably a waste of time, since I later learned the man was an idiot, and it became rather obvious that his secretary had not been hired for her typing skills.  Unless I was on fire (and maybe, even if I was), he wasn’t going to be looking at me as he passed through that office.

Some of the more interesting parts I drew up in ink, often mailing a copy back to the designer at the trailer company, who was delighted to have them and further claimed that the finished parts were exactly as needed:  the Dragon had cut all of the parts within his specifications.

One day, after finishing a drawing for a new part, I decided to hand deliver it to the fabricating shop—partly to waste time, but also partly because I hoped to actually see the massive Dragon cutting multiple parts out of two-inch thick steel.  Donning the obligatory hard hat, I searched for the shop foreman in the massive warehouse, discovering that he was supervising the loading of the plate steel onto the cutting bed of the Dragon.

Correctly guessing that I wanted to see the machine in operation, he waved at me to follow him into his office.  As he took off his gloves, he accepted my newest work of art and help it up to the light to admire it.

“Nice drawing,” he said.  Then, using a ruler as a straight edge, he roughly tore off the bottom left corner containing the top view of the trailer part, stuffing the rest of the drawing into a trash can.  Then using a large black marker, he quickly traced around the outside of my carefully drawn lines, making each of them about an eighth of an inch wide.  My carefully executed drawing now looked like something hastily inked by a child.

Seeing the startled look on my face, he explained.  “The electric eye on that beast gets covered with dust and it can’t follow the lines unless you make them wider.”

“What about the accuracy of the cuts?” I asked.

“Oh, the kerf loss from the torches is a little more than a quarter of an inch, so they always request the parts bigger than needed, then machine them down.”

That was the day that I learned something they weren’t teaching me in college—The Three Rules of Engineering, at least as practiced in a steel fabricating shop:

         1.  Bash to form.
         2.  File to fit.
         3.  Paint to cover.

Realizing that my job was in severe peril, I began searching for a new home at Peden.  As it happened, just outside the president’s office was the structural steel department.  One of the salesmen was in the hospital for a few weeks and his phone rang endlessly.  Uninvited, I moved to his desk and started answering the phone, writing down messages while I studied all the paperwork he had left on his desk.  Within a few days, I began writing up orders, and after two weeks, I was the department’s newest salesman.  I never sat at that drafting table again.

It has been almost half a century since I got a salary for being a draftsman, though I still have a drafting board, my T-square is still straight, and I still know how to make truly accurate drawings.  If you ever need an accurate blueprint, I’ll be happy to scribble something on a piece of paper with a black marker for you.  You’ll have to bring your own Dragon.