The writer spends some time with the creators of "Adventure Time"—a wildly popular animated TV series on the Cartoon Network—to discuss what makes the show so magical:
We began by talking about humor. Children’s humor, I suggested, is commonly thought of as a kind of “diversion” from fear or sadness. But Adventure Time confronts very dark themes head on: The apocalypse, the possibility of loss and pain, grief and mortality. Yet somehow it makes these grave things seem so simple, unthreatening, even hilarious.
“It’s funnier when you’re sad, I think,” he said. “I’ve heard laughter is releasing stress from your body, like when you go, ’HA! Haaaa!’—you know, you get it out of you. My favorite kind of humor is dark comedies, because I think, mmm… I guess that’s my personality, maybe I’m more cynical about things, so I laugh stuff off easily, and life is really scary?"
PUBLISHED: April 15, 2014
LENGTH: 45 minutes (11383 words)
Massively Open Online Courses, or MOOCs are currently being heralded as the future of affordable education. But what kind of education will it actually provide?
"Everybody loves the idea of lowering the barriers of entry to education; it's the easiest sell in the world, and Khan Academy, a nonprofit, pushes all the right buttons. Khan's success thus paved the way for MOOC providers to employ a rhetoric of inclusiveness, simplicity, low cost, and metrics, metrics, metrics: the same reasoning that today drives everything from 'philanthrocapitalist' foundation spending to high-stakes standardized testing.
"But the shortcomings of the Khan approach will be evident to anyone who cares to have a go at 'US History Overview 1: Jamestown to the Civil War,' the 18:28 minute video-with-voiceover class I chose at random from the Khan website. Within the first two minutes Khan has disposed of over a century, blowing past Jamestown ('a kind of commercial settlement') and Plymouth Rock ('we always learned this in school, you know, the Pilgrims on the Mayflower sailing the oceans blue and all the rest') and 'fast-forwarding' to 1754. It's not even a flashcard approach; it's a series of lacunae, startlingly free of insight or context, mentioning not one single book or author, and only one political or religious figure (George Washington) in the nine minutes I watched. I've seen more informative cereal boxes."
PUBLISHED: Jan. 31, 2013
LENGTH: 18 minutes (4608 words)
A review of Hanna Rosin's The End of Men
"Equality is the pole star of my own politics, and that made it really tough going for me to read The End of Men
objectively, or maybe even fairly, because it's evident that Rosin believes women to be literally — and inherently — superior to men. This view is not only one I don't share, it is anathema to me. It is the exact reason why I have never been able to call myself a feminist; it transgresses against my deepest conviction, namely, a belief in universal human equality. I believe that each of us — all human beings who share the same seemingly limitless abilities, and the same unfathomable doom — should be able to develop his or her potential and live freely and on equal terms in a condition of mutual respect and support. That is not quite the Rosin view. 'It's possible that girls have always had the raw material to make better students,' she writes, 'that they've always been more studious, organized, self-disciplined, and eager to please, but, because of limited opportunities, what did it matter?' Or: 'Many of us hold out the hope that there is a utopia in our future run by women, that power does not in fact corrupt equally.' (Really, 'many' of us hold out this hope? I for one would be too scared it would turn out like that old Star Trek: TNG episode, 'Angel One.')"
PUBLISHED: Sept. 11, 2012
LENGTH: 11 minutes (2900 words)
Bill Gates and George Soros are handing out billions, but there are downsides to foundation giving:
"The new focus on metrics has brought with it a new breed of nonprofit and for-profit partnerships. Foundations such as the Omidyar Network, established in 2004 by eBay’s founder, Pierre Omidyar, provide both investments in for-profit companies and charitable grants.
"This approach is called by various names such as 'social entrepreneurship,' 'venture philanthropy,' and 'philanthrocapitalism,' but it all amounts to rather the same thing: controlling charitable giving in order to produce measurable, 'sustaining' and/or profitable results.
"'Philanthrocapitalism' is an especially curious coinage, giving rise to a hitherto unarticulated contrast—namely, with the kind of capitalism that is not-philanthro-. "
PUBLISHED: June 13, 2012
LENGTH: 24 minutes (6100 words)
A review of Bissell's new book of essays
—and how the writer both entertains and frustrates:
"The best thing about Tom Bissell: He is fun. I think of him as 'a wild and crazy guy.' I'm by turns entertained and completely aghast at his antics. He is totally obsessive. He's watched that appalling movie The Room a bajillion times. I loved the idea of him and David Foster Wallace negotiating gravely about whether or not they ought to dip tobacco together (they did). Bissell, apparently, travels all over the place with a hardcover copy of Infinite Jest, which is surely the most inconvenient thing outside of, like, a chihuahua, to have to pack in a suitcase. And I don't know if he's given it up by now (I hope so) but he used to drink 10 Diet Cokes every day. Ten! That is terrible, Tom Bissell! I worry about him."
PUBLISHED: April 19, 2012
LENGTH: 13 minutes (3487 words)
The art of writing romance novels:
"The romance heroine, though possessed of heart, intelligence and beauty, is at the mercy of her own self-criticism most of the time. As the story begins, she is scared and isolated, poor, or abandoned, or lonely. Not infrequently, the book opens with her having just suffered some terrible loss; her husband has just died in a plane crash, or her parents or beloved guardians have died, and now she is forced to work as a paid companion to a rich and disagreeable widow, maybe, or she's just come to Australia from England to live with her grandfather, who is mean as a snake. Then she runs into an unusual and interesting man who openly demonstrates his dislike for her, or else pretty much ignores her entirely.
"Difficulties will multiply. And almost always, as the tension builds, the heroine is beset with doubts about her own competence, attractiveness and worth.
"That's just how I feel! the reader cries inwardly."
PUBLISHED: Feb. 15, 2012
LENGTH: 16 minutes (4043 words)
Since the July 19th indictment of Aaron Swartz for surreptitiously whooshing nearly five million JSTOR documents onto a laptop concealed in an MIT network closet, there's been a lot of codswallop written about JSTOR, about Aaron Swartz and about the public's right to access documents in the public domain. A 24-year-old computer prodigy and political activist, Swartz has been caricatured as either a hero or a villain; likewise JSTOR. The U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen M. Ortiz, who brought the charges against Swartz: she might be a bit of a villain, okay. Information wants to be free, it's been said. But whether this means free of charge or merely liberated from its confines is a distinction most often left unmade.
PUBLISHED: Aug. 3, 2011
LENGTH: 17 minutes (4334 words)
But Christopher Hitchens! Ach, Christopher Hitchens. How I have loved him, despite the ordeals he has put me through. He'll go and be a fearful crank about atheism or "Islamofascism" for ages and I get all mad, and then he writes this freaking brilliant column about the Murdoch scandals and I'm crazy about him again. Old loves are like that.
PUBLISHED: July 20, 2011
LENGTH: 21 minutes (5447 words)