Thursday, October 10, 2013


Friday Fragments

This graph caused quite the stir on Twitter, and rightly so.  It’s easy to argue about the reasons behind it, but I suggest that anyone considering graduate school as an entry into an academic career should see it and think hard about it.  


This weekend I’m heading to Charlotte, NC, for the NACCE conference.  I’m particularly psyched to be on a panel with Tressie McMillan Cottom and Anne Kress.  I’ve never been to Charlotte before, so any suggestions of “must sees” would be appreciated!


Last Saturday, we took the kids to the Jack O’Lantern Spectacular at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence.  It was impressive, if overcrowded.  Everybody had smartphones, so the crowd moved painfully slowly as everyone tried to take pictures in the dark.  The display is organized by state, so every state got its distinctive tribute pumpkins.  We made a point of seeking out The Wife’s exotic native land, which had the inevitable Springsteen pumpkin.  

Pro-tip: if you use LED’s instead of candles, you can line the inside of the jack o’lantern with colored tissue paper.  They had a few giant green ones that made quite the impression.


Based on last Sunday’s concert, I can report that Weird Al Yankovic’s appeal still crosses generations.  I took The Boy and The Girl to see him at the Calvin theater in Northampton.  (The Wife had no interest in seeing Weird Al, inexplicably.)  I expected a crowd full of parents with children, which wasn’t quite true.  It was mostly groups of adults, many of them my age or older.  The ones in the row behind us knew every word to every song, and insisted on proving it.  

I enjoyed the evening, mostly, but would not have gone without the kids.  

Weird Al’s commercial peak was in the 80’s, so some of his hits based their appeal on references that predate the kids.  He didn’t make any concessions to that; he did the full Michael Jackson treatment on “Eat It” and “Fat,” complete with costumes and distinctive dance moves.  The kids didn’t quite get the references, but enjoyed it anyway.  The concert was interspersed with video clips of Al’s history, including a jarringly racist clip from “UHF” that made his multiple Michael Jackson parodies a little uncomfortable.  I’ll admit having a slightly melancholy moment when Al did his Nirvana parody in a perfect Kurt Cobain outfit and wig, but that probably says more about me than it does about Al.

The highlight for the kids was the Star Wars trilogy, set to the tune of “American Pie.”  (“My, my, this here Anakin guy/ may be Vader someday later/ now he’s just a small fry…”)  For once, they fully got the lyrical references, and felt included.  TG was a little disappointed that he didn’t do “Another One Rides the Bus,” but you can’t have everything.  


Speaking of 80’s music and Anne Kress, on her recommendation I saw “Color Me Obsessed,” a documentary about fans of The Replacements.  The ‘Mats are on tour again, sort of, so it seemed like a good time to check out the film.

The film is frustratingly true to its topic, in that it doesn’t include any actual ‘Mats music.  It’s really about the fans, and what they heard in the band.  My favorite moment was the opening, during which a series of fans tried, and failed, to explain what it was about the ‘Mats that made them special.  The pained expressions and halting sentences were priceless.

TW caught the first twenty minutes or so with me before walking out of the room.  The moments that grabbed her were when the film flashed the track listings from the first few Replacements albums.  The song titles alone speak to a certain social location and self-awareness: “God Damn Job,” “Dope Smokin’ Moron,” “White and Lazy,” “Love You ‘Til Friday.”  Westerberg may be a pain, but he’s a self-aware pain, and that counts for something.

The movie also settled a few mysteries of long standing.  The album “Tim” got its name from the lead singer of a band that Paul and Tommy saw pass out drunk, face first, two songs into his set, but his band played on anyway.  It sounded like something Paul and Tommy would do.  And we heard from the woman who inspired “Answering Machine,” which remains one of the most haunting pop/rock songs I’ve ever heard.  (Springsteen’s “State Trooper,” from “Nebraska,” or Tom Waits’ “Murder in the Red Barn” come close.)  As claims to fame go, it’s not bad.

Judging by TW’s reaction, non-fans won’t be won over.  But for longtime fans, it’s a treat.  You know who you are.  

I can understand why the Twitterverse would be excited about a graph that captures facts that have been widely known for decades. The bitter Physics graduates circa 1968 teaching as adjuncts or the 1/100 faculty job -- and our professors -- made sure that we knew about it even though some of us benefited from a few of the above-average blips shown on that graph. This knowledge faded with time as the Physics market stabilized, but no one told the biologists about it.

I've written about this before (Click here to go to Part 1 on Supply, there is a link from there to Part 2 on Demand). I should probably bring that up to date, if only to fix the broken links. (The AIP inexplicably moves important files around on their server.)

Physics data show that only about 1/3 of PhDs end up in academic jobs based on historical averages, with the rest going into industry or national labs or (more recently) into full-time non-teaching jobs at universities. They also show a large fraction of foreign students, many of whom return home.

I'd guess that the reason this graph was in Nature, and the reason for the excitement, is that a lot of the growth has been on the bio-med side where I and others predicted it would be as unsustainable there as it was in physics in the 1950s and 60s. Physics degrees have been reasonably steady with some very long-period secular oscillations.
Just a quick comment on your trip to Charlotte. I don't know what your outside work interests are, but Charlotte is home to the NASCAR hall of fame, which is actually a pretty fun museum to visit.
Brian Posehn had a bit in his latest standup special ("The Fartist") about his son growing up listening to Weird Al without knowing the originals.

"Someday in the future, my kid will be at a party and 'Beat It' will come on. He'll be so confused.

"'Hey, Dad, have you ever heard of this Michael Jackson guy? He totally ripped off Weird Al!'

"'No, son, never heard of him.'"

Also: the Replacements song "God Damn Job" should be an anthem of today. The chorus of "I NEED A GOD-DAMN JOB!" would resonate.
"a jarringly racist clip from “UHF” that made his multiple Michael Jackson parodies a little uncomfortable."

Uh huh. Do tell.
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