Category: Notables

What are the odds?

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LUNCHTIME. POURING RAIN HAS TURNED my vertical office window into a water sculpture. I’m working my way through some cafeteria beef chili and a backstack of university magazines. The chili is a bit generic, but not bad, especially with a bag of pita chips. The magazines are numbingly mundane. By luck of the draw I’ve pulled a selection that features one uninspired, predictable issue after another. Lead paragraphs flat and uninviting. Pallid attempts to brag about negligible sports triumphs. (“We finished 20th! Best ever!”) Stories that tell me nothing beyond what I already know, in lifeless prose. Boring photography. Design cliches.

Just a bad stack.

Then, on pg. 54 of the Sept/Oct ’13 issue of The University of Chicago Magazine, a two-pager by associate editor Jason Kelly. (Associate editors make the best writers. It’s a rule.) Every issue of Chicago contains a “legacy” piece about some alum and his or her lasting contribution. Kelly’s legacy piece is about Charles K. McNeil, and it’s a beauty. McNeil was a gambler. Not the sort of gambler who is revered for taking the big chance on an entrepreneurial venture or going for it on fourth down in the Rose Bowl or pinning his whole career on a scientific theory that seemed to make no sense at the time. No, McNeil was the gambling sort of gambler. He bet on sports. For a living and really well. So well that one of Chicago’s biggest sports books limited how much he could wager and McNeil attracted unwanted attention from mobsters. He may or may not have invented the points spread; whoever did should have gotten the Nobel.

The story is great for several reasons. First, there’s its unlikelihood as an alumni magazine story. Our magazines brag about all those dedicated scholars and earnest undergraduates and winning coaches (“20th place!”) and benefactors who just want to pay it forward. They don’t often brag about bookies from the Class of 1925. But McNeil’s a great story, and let’s give Chicago a round of applause for recognizing that.

Then there’s Kelly’s prose. Man can write. I love the lead graphs:

Charles K. McNeil, PhB’25, would bet on anything. An afternoon at Wrigley Field involved not only a wager on the outcome but an array of side bets about the game and beyond, like whether a stumbling drunk in the bleachers would fall down. During the depths of the Depression, McNeil even laid odds on the next person to be fired at the bank where he worked as a securities analyst.

Successful beyond the wildest dreams of most gamblers, McNeil lost on that one. He put the bank president at 3 to 1 to be ousted, but the boss got wind of it and canned McNeil instead. “I had myself at 8 to 1,” he told William Barry Furlong in a 1977 New York Times Magazine story that recounted McNeil’s influence on the pastime that became his profession: sports gambling.

My that’s good. Just the right selection of details. Just the right diction: “the boss got wind of it and canned McNeil instead.” The dry wit. The great quote: “I had myself at 8 to 1.” The rest of the piece works just as well. (So does the clever illustration by Daniel Hertzberg.) Two pages in the magazine that light it up. Good stuff.

Big question at Notre Dame

ndcoverThe best university magazines address big questions. But they tend to address big questions that have articulated factual answers. What is the universe like if string theory turns out to be right? Why can’t the global public health apparatus eradicate malaria? How does a new set of fossil bones force a new idea about our early hominid ancestors and change our fundamental picture of how Homo sapiens evolved? 

Notre Dame Magazine has marked out its turf as addressing big questions that do not have straightforward answers. And editor Kerry Temple and his staff do not shy from big, hard-to-address questions that could be troubling to the university. The cover story in the Summer 2013 issue is one more example, posing the hard question in its title: “Is College Worth It?” Alumnus and Assumption College faculty member James Lang comes at the question as a teacher who works to make college a worthwhile experience and a parent staring down massive tuition payments. He also comes at the question as a smart and skilled writer.

Lang opens the piece with an excellent bit of verbal draughtsmanship as he introduces a student of his who seemed not to need college to help secure a good job. Andrew Hadley’s family owns a prosperous fish-processing company, and after high school Hadley had a guaranteed job that he liked. I am a connoisseur of good leads and Lang wrote one:

Andrew Hadley is a fish fixer. As the heir-apparent to the Hadley Company, an international fish-processing and import-export business, he steps in when a New England casino calls on a Thursday and says it needs 600 pounds of whitefish for the weekend. He loads the truck himself, drives it down to the casino and gently reminds the buyers to place their orders a little earlier in the week next time.

This is how you start a long piece on a topic potentially so ponderous—you start with a deft 13-paragraph sketch of a smart kid who prompted one of his teachers, in this case the author, to ask not only “Why are you here?” but “Why is anybody here, especially at these prices?”

Which is really the urgent matter, isn’t it? The list of benefits that accrue from a college education have not changed in 50 years; all that changes is how each benefit is weighted for a given generation. What makes the question urgent now is the heart-stopping cost of four years at most any college or university, and the increasing volume of critics unwilling to be brushed aside by condescending academics who often seem put-upon because someone does not care to accept their “do we really have to explain the value of this again“ responses.

It is much to Lang’s, and Notre Dame‘s credit, that “Is College Worth It?” starts its attempt at an answer with the acknowledgement that it is a damned good question. Then it makes clear the answer may not be some sort of institutional sales pitch:

The worst part of the price tag of a college education today, at least according to some authors, stems from the speculation that colleges and universities are driving up prices through outdated hiring and labor practices, financial mismanagement, and arms-race spending on amenities like sushi in the dining halls and rock-climbing walls in the athletic center.

There’s a sentence guaranteed to amp a senior administrator’s blood pressure. So let’s pause here to acknowledge and praise the bosses at Notre Dame the school for allowing Notre Dame the magazine to publish pieces that contain sentences like that. Lang thoughtfully responds to that critique, mainly by citing the explanations and arguments put forth by Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman in their book, Why Does College Cost So Much? You may agree with them or not, but Lang does a fine job of taking the reader through their reasoning and conclusions.

At this point in my reading of the story, though, I experienced a twinge of dismay because I felt that what had begun in such a promising fashion as a provocative piece was turning into the same old answer—”Of course it’s worth it!”—only delivered in better prose. But then Lang gives space to the eduhacking movement that has been challenging the idea that the only place to obtain a college education is at a college. He finishes well with some discussion of what makes a good college student, and what makes for a kid who perhaps does not belong in college.

Too many students, by contrast, come into college without any driving questions or interests behind them. They wander from class to class, without any sense of larger purpose, checking off boxes on their degree audits, or they see the whole experience as an expensive means to find friends, earn a degree, and get a job. …These are the kinds of students who, no matter where they choose to matriculate, are probably paying too much for college.

The same issue of the magazine includes a five-page satirical comic by Michael Molinelli about the high cost of tuition that ends with Notre Dame announcing that henceforth tuition will be free but football tickets will cost $5,000 a piece. There’s also a strong, engaging profile by associate editor Tara Hunt of an alumnus chef. Makes for a pretty good issue, don’t you think?

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(Oh, there’s also some funky business with parts of the magazine that play video on your smart phone if you point the phone at the right spot on the page and engage a certain app. The instructions involve six steps. I don’t know how well it works because I’m a grumpy old analogue guy with a dumbphone, plus if you’re a regular reader of UMagazinology you know my lack of regard for enticing readers to leave your magazine for a digital device. But one of you dear readers can give it a spin and report the results in the comments section.)

Squirrely

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The July/August edition of Alcalde, from the University of Texas at Austin, is notable for two things.

boomer-5680First, it opens its feature well with “The Lawn Rangers—A Longhorn Captures the Sport of Lawn Mower Racing in All Its Gritty Glory.” Yeah. Lawn mower racing. And page by page, it just gets better, with the Lone Star Mower Racing Association—you knew there had to be an association—and Bruce “Mr. Mowitall” Kaufman and one of the all-time great lines from a photo caption: “. . . Wes ‘Tha’ Kid’ Campbell comes from a long line of mower racers.” Life’s rich pageant.

University of Texas campusThe other notable thing in Alcalde is a field guide to the flora and fauna of the university’s 40 acres of campus. UT is an urban school, but that doesn’t mean you won’t come across a monk parakeet or a red-eared slider (that’s a turtle) or a blotched watersnake. Alcalde produced an online video field guide to accompany the print story, and you ought to check it out. I’ve watched the fox squirrel bit about nine times. UT is not in Beloit College’s league when it comes to squirrel video, but still, look at that little guy…

But now I’m nagged by an existential question: Is squirrel video cheating?

Whoa, a new blog post, and it’s not about Doyle

cocmagcoverLet’s see, about 23 days since my last post here. The Fall 2013 issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine has been a . . . chore to finish,  and has occupied all of my time and energy. Plus are editorial offices our moving—more on that tomorrow—and we have to be all packed up by Labor Day. Hence the unplanned and prolonged hiatus.

But now I’m back, with a few lines about the story I’ve most liked in the last few weeks: “Shattered Worlds,” by Alicia Lutz in the most recent issue of College of Charleston Magazine. It’s a profile of alumnus Hugh Howey, who incredibly became rich from a self-published science fiction novel titled Wool. Howey had already written nine novels or novellas and published all of them himself when he sat down at his Macbook Air and tapped out a 40-page short story and used Kindle Direct Publishing at Amazon to zip it out to the public. It cost $0.99 to download and read and Howey sold a thousand copies (so to speak—we’re talking electrons here) in three months. That encouraged him to write four more installments over the next two months. In January 2012, he released, again for Kindle, an omnibus edition of all five stories as Wool, and 23,000 readers bought copies in the first month. Before long, the author was pulling in $150,000 a month from sales of the ebook; Amazon named Wool the best indie science fiction title of 2012.

Hugh Howey has always gone his own way. He’s always done what suited him. As a kid, he was somewhat of a loner, an introvert. Not that he was antisocial or disruptive – not at all. He was a good student, a good athlete and a good classmate. He had one close friend, but got along with everyone. Still, he always preferred the company of the book sticking out of his back pocket. 

In high school, he managed to stay above the fray – remaining completely unaware of the peer pressure that plagued his classmates. He grew his hair long, played soccer, rode a skateboard and listened to his parents’ rock ‘n’ roll. 

“I thought of myself as a romantic, reading and writing poetry all the time, which often led to interest from girls who would grow frustrated by my lack of moves and run off with my best friend,” Howey sighs. “It worked out great for him.”

What makes the story work is Lutz’s sure hand with a narrative and her consistently sound judgement in what to harvest from Howey’s oddball life. It took the writer three tries to graduate from Charleston because he kept leaving to go to sea on various boats. He was on a boat at the base of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

shatteredworldsspreadHowey eventually made history, of a sort, by signing a substantial print-only contract with Simon & Schuster. The publisher would bring his work out in print, but Howey would keep the digital rights and keep on selling his ebooks. He’s peddled the film rights for Wool to Ridley Scott.

Two other things make this a great magazine feature package. One, Charleston convinced him to pose for Jason Myers (who is a hell of a portrait shooter) in what looks like a circa-1962 spacesuit, the sort of thing that would not look out of place on the cover of a 1950s pulp science fiction magazine. (I know this because I was once an avid reader of such magazines.) And second, illustrator Justin Fields did some killer art for two of the spreads. The story runs 12 pages in the magazine, including a page devoted to an excerpt from Wool, and it had to be expensive. But College of Charleston does this kind of thing really well. Nice work.

Richmond steps up

Matthew Dewald did good work when he was at the University of Dayton. Now that he plies his blue pencil—old-print-guy-editor reference—at the University of Richmond, he’s making Richmond a magazine that merits your attention.

madison-mooreThe most recent issue got my attention on pg. 2 with a photo of this guy, to your right in the killer heels. He is Madison Moore, a post-doc at Richmond, and I don’t know which I like more—that Richmond is cool enough to put him on the adjunct faculty, or that Dewald was cool enough to put him in the magazine.

In the feature well is something else you don’t see every day: Two readable stories written by faculty members. Political science assistant professor Monti Narayan Datta contributed a potent piece about contemporary slavery, especially the Asian sex trade. But the piece that impressed me the most was “Click to Agree” by Jim Gibson, a law professor and director of Richmond’s Intellectual Property Institute. It’s a six-page spread on boilerplate contracts. Yeah. Six pages on boilerplate contracts, those things that we all never read but must agree to before we can install software on our computers or a new app on our smartphones. And I read it all.

For one thing, Gibson has the wit to include this as an example of consumer oblivion to boilerplate:

Like price, a contract term is just a feature of the transaction. If you don’t like the contract, just walk away. When you walk away, you’re signaling to the invisible hand to come down hard on that seller.

But does the theory work in practice? Consider this: A couple of years ago, a British video game retailer hatched an April Fool’s Day scheme. Buried deep in its online sales contract, to which customers had to agree when making a purchase, was the following term: “By placing an order via this Web site on the first day of the fourth month of the year 2010 Anno Domini, you agree to grant Us a non transferable option to claim, for now and for ever more, your immortal soul.”

The fine print described how the company could exercise its option, including serving notice “in 6 (six) foot high letters of fire.” But if you were an attentive customer and you wanted to hold onto your soul—or had “already given it to another party”—you could opt out of the provision by clicking a link. Those who did were rewarded with a discount offer and the chance to win free games.

You can guess what happened. The vast majority of customers never clicked the link. They simply agreed to the entire contract without reading it.

Gibson goes on to report on an analysis that he’s done of the cost to the consumer of actually reading and comprehending the boilerplate contracts that accompanied four computers that he bought, compared to potential consumer benefit. You’ll have to trust me on this until you see for yourself—the story at this point is still engaging and readable.

But wait—computers are expensive. One should expect to spend some time checking them out before parting with so much money. I addressed this issue by expressing the consumer’s burden in words per dollar. Even under this metric, the burden is high: 93 words per dollar spent. Imagine having to read 93 words of boilerplate each time you buy a can of soda, 279 words when buying a $3 gallon of milk, or 5,580 words when filling a 20-gallon tank with gas.

click-to-agree-infographicThat’s smart writing. And illustrator Katie McBride put all of this into a terrific two-page infographic, reproduced online in a stacked version. (Click on the image to fully appreciate it.) I finished the piece and thought, That’s the damnedest alumni magazine story I’ve read all year.

Makes me wonder what Dewald and Richmond will do next. Which is exactly what we all want readers to think when they finish our latest issues.