Mourning the loss of nuance and complexity

The opening of the song is nearly two minutes of piano and guitar. No lyric until just about the two minute mark, at a time when pop songs on American FM were expected to be no longer than three minutes and following a simple structure of verse, chorus, bridge, hook, and refrain. At  eight minutes and 10 seconds, the song “Bat out of Hell” follows none of these conventions.

It is one of the greatest rock songs of all time.

It’s greatness lies in its power and complexity. It has nuance and depth. It can be sung with anger and triumph or it can be screamed down the highway with an unshakable sense of loss.

Cutting it down to fit FM airplay rules is a hack job.

The same is true for “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” Any trimming simply reduces the narrative, and the basic conflict. It would turn it in to pablum. Ten minutes is just about the perfect length for this song.

These songs are great and the album on which they appear “Bat out of Hell” is currently the fifth best-selling of all time, according to the Wiki-god.

Reducing them would be absurd.

At the other end of the spectrum, “Escape” aka “Escape (the pina colada song)” is much shorter. Kind of cute and maudlin and you really only the need the chorus to feel happy. The narrative exists only to justify the chorus. On the other hand, the chorus is unnecessary without the narrative.

So, let’s also look at “Hooked on a Feeling” which is just under three minutes and just as close as one can get to lyrically-based musical wallpaper. It’s a nice little song, but it is not one that washes away or recalls teenage angst.

Let’s just think about how this is like data or policy information.

“Just give me what I need to make a decision.”

“That’s what I am trying to do. You need to know these things to both make your decision, understand the risks, and more importantly, understand why you are making this decision.”

“No. I don’t have that kind of time. Neither does our audience.”

“Right, you want “Hooked on a Feeling” and I am trying to give you “Bat out of Hell.”

One of these will stand the test of time.

We are in a time when nuance and complexity seem to be rarely appreciated. Consultants shout, “Spare change! Spare Change!” and all the executives hear “Change! Change!” (credit to Scott Adams for this.) Consultants tell us fewer measures are better, simpler measures are better. We end up with a college scorecard that demands understanding, demands nuance, but little is provided.

I believe understanding comes with effort, with work. Good decision-making comes from understanding, otherwise it is luck or privilege. I am a violently cynical idealist that keeps hoping for the tide to turn, but expecting to wait a long damn time.

And when you say Dylan, he thinks you are talking about Dylan Thomas, whoever he was.

And he was:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

–Dylan Thomas

Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (maybe)

So, I am kind of moody about the latest BSO (Bright Shiny Object) to hit the ether this week. While I think the new report from EdTrust about Pell Graduation Rates is a good piece of work, I am again frustrated that the attention is on having a national database to play with…especially since it merely documents what some of us knew already.

Pell students tend to have lower graduation rates than the institution average and lower than non-Pell recipients.

We’ve been publishing such data since 2008, here in THE Commonwealth. Further, we have it by gender, race/ethnicity, part-time students, transfer students, and those taking remedial courses in the first year. Oh, we also do the same for all other Title IV programs and Virginia aid programs.

Of course, I am getting kind of oldish and dated. It is rare that I get excited by, let alone chase, each new BSO, even if it is a data BSO. I have more data than people are able to use. I also spend a lot of time thinking about reshaping published data, and doing so. So any new data must add value beyond what I have already. And that is a pretty high bar.

My relationship with data goes back a long ways. Long enough to explain the why my database is still relational. Data, she’s harsh mistress, but she doesn’t have to worry about me leaving her for the newest data. In fact, the older she gets, the more I care about her.

But I do get jealous that she doesn’t get the attention she deserves. Too often there is a bias for two things: national data and easy-pezy comparisons. I keep wanting the story to be along the lines of, “Very nice, you caught up with Virginia. Now what are you going to do with it? What’s your goal?”

You can read about our goals here.

I also want the occasionally story to be, “Oh, look at Virginia has done. Nice. Now what are you going to do with it?” “Well, let me tell you…..”

Dude, it is tabular. The data are tabular. Abide.

It ain’t no use in callin’ out my name, Gal
Like you never did before
And It ain’t no use in callin’ out my name, Gal
I can’t hear you anymore
I’m a-thinkin’ and a-wond’rin’ walkin’ all the way down the road
I once loved a woman,a child I’m told
I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul
Don’t think twice,it’s all right

And this is where the Scorecard fails


A colleague sent me a link to a local blog post that took data from the College Scorecard and plotted wages against estimated median SAT. He wanted to know if we could do this.

“Can we do crap analysis, inattentive to definition and datasource, and blog about it? We could, but we won’t.”

Apart from the fact that the author of the blog post in question is kind of clueless about this type of analysis in the first place, the Scorecard has admirable lack of clarity to it. Admirable, that is, if you are trying to create confusion and noise. I know I take some heat for trying to publish too much data and text, but I need people to know what they are looking at. Understanding will eventually come with such knowledge, but almost never in its absence. The Scorecard does not do that.

If a user is like myself and understands where the data are drawn from and what that means for their scope, then the scorecard is fine. But few enough people in higher education are actually well-informed about Title IV, and fewer still have a clue about the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS). So confusion is not a surprise. But it is irritating as it creates local brushfires to extinguish. Lord knows what our board is going to have say about it the next two days.

The College Scorecard needs next. Much more text than is currently there. Explication about what things are and are not. Recognition that some words are commonly misused and misunderstood. Such as “alumni.”

There needs to be a guide for the casual, oh-so casual user (and abuser) of data that lays out the limits in simple English. You know, “‘executive-speak.”

Blood for College – A Cautionary Tale

It wasn’t a good way to the start the day.

Every Thursday, Derek started with the feeling of being a quart low. Sunday nights through Wednesday nights were spent working the overnight shift at the bus station. He knew from family members, not just older, but old, family members that such a shift used to be called the “graveyard shift,” but since only the old and poor traveled by bus, that was just too eerie. Too many riders looked like the walking dead.

Unfortunately, the daytime was not much better. Derek was a “Gerontological Blood-flow Assistant” meaning that he spent his days in the gerontology center massaging the extremities of people well over a hundred years old. Medical science (and law) could keep them from dying, but it couldn’t give them any kind of normal life. Unless they had wealth. So, Derek, and millions of young people around the world, lacking anything beyond a high school education spent hours each day twiddling toes and fingers, massaging and legs arms while maintaining a constant stream of chatter. The wages were not quite lowest of the low, but it was the cleanest of the low wage jobs.

Monday through Thursday the routine was harsh. Spend the night working baggage and customer service at the bus station. Back to the four-room house he shared with four other gerontology assistants and three college students. One of these was Sherrie.

Sherrie was whom Derek and the others wanted to be. She had busted her ass for years in the gerontology center and elsewhere (worse places they all suspected) to buy her way to college.  Sherrie had made it in, at the age of 27, without indenturing herself, bankrupting her parents, or becoming part of a menagerie. As long as she kept her expenses low and studied continually she would graduate in just two more years and receive her art degree. After two months of competition and testing, she would earn her license as a painter of landscapes and portraits. She would have options then. Unlike Derek, who cannot be an artist until he goes back to school. The Foundation has been so successful in its credential efforts begun decades ago, that now, all the creative class and the useful class (engineers, software designers) must be credentialed and licensed or face stiff penalties.

The New Indenture began in the early part of the 21st century when the policy elites became convinced the higher education bubble was about the burst, such that young people and most families would not ever be able to afford college, particularly as student debt rose and rose. At the same time, nongovernmental entities were pushing a college completion agenda convincing the same policy elites that nation’s economy (and thus the world’s) could only be saved by greater and greater numbers of citizens with college degrees. Clearly a crisis was coming and a response must be made!

As such things often go, all good intentions became little more than paving stones with a strong odors of sulfur and brimstone. Ideas that seemed reasonable and harmless to many were adopted against the warnings of the few who saw the risks (based on lessons of the past). Instead of borrowing for college or paying outright, students committed a share of their future earnings to the government or human-venture capitalists. For awhile, this approach seemed to work well. But as had always happened in the past, colleges and universities lost any sense of constraints in spending and income share to repay a student’s college costs grew from the six percent for tuition plus the four percent for living expenses to 25% and 10% leaving less and less to live. Graduates became increasingly creative in ways to hide income or to duck out of the original agreements. This lead to penalties for noncompliance.

Penalties based on those damn mice.

See, sometime in 2014, researchers had discovered they could extend a mouse’s life with new blood. Fresh blood. It was seemingly right out of Robert A. Heinlein’s novella, “Methusaleh’s Children.” Periodically, one had only replace all the blood in their body with fresh blood and life could be extended another 100 years. With development of a synthetically produced blood, the promise of longer lives was available to everyone.

Except the promise was never realized. Seventy-three years later, we were no closer to synthetic blood. But, the lobbyists of the wealthy (also known as the “elected class”)  were successful in passing laws allowing not only blood donations through private entities for life extension, but to contract with groups of donors. A merely wealthy person might have a menagerie of two or three young people in college, or waiting to get into a college. A super wealthy person might be supporting two dozen donors for each member of their family. Typically support was college scholarships, dietary supplements, medical care, and a small stipend while in college. In exchange, each donor would commit to 20 years of bimonthly donations and agree to keep up a healthy lifestyle. Anyhow, once these agreements were legalized, they also became the model for penalties for non-compliance the previously mentioned income-share agreements.Only no stipends and precious little gentleness during collection.

To default resulted in pretty horrific penalties. Mainly in forced organ donation.