Busman’s Holiday

So on a widely celebrated holiday a couple months ago, I got a special gift from my family: a very cool little audio recorder. This was in recognition, I think, that: 1) I’m a swell guy, 2) my journalistic endeavors now involve working with sound, and 3) that I put this item on my Amazon wish list.

This morning, my little recorder had an on-air debut of sorts. I went up to the Cal baseball double-header yesterday to try to talk to people about the university’s decision to eliminate the team next year. (Digression: The university has deepening budget problems as its state resources dwindle. Tuition has gone up 44 percent over the last three years to make up part of the gap, and the administration wants to reduce the deficit in the intercollegiate athletics program as part of a workable long-term budget. All that makes sense to people. What has made less sense, or at least is much less understood among the Old Blue community, is the process by which UC-Berkeley decided last fall to end baseball, rugby, men’s and women’s gymnastics, and women’s lacrosse, then reinstate all but baseball and men’s gymnastics (for a taste of the frustration with these decisions, check out this post from my KQED colleague Jon Brooks). The politics is complex, and involves both the university’s handling of potential sports donor and its obligations under Title IX, the federal law that prescribes gender equity in education programs. But even if one buys the official rationale, one might feel a certain disconnect from reality when watching the baseball team take the field. It’s ranked 17th in the country and provided an opening-day gift for fans by sweeping its two games against Utah yesterday–taking the nightcap with a four-run rally in fading daylight in the bottom of the ninth. End of digression.)

Where were we? I went up and did some interviews and recorded some game sound at Evans Diamond. Then I came home, fired up the never-used-before sound editor I bought earlier in the day, Hindenburg (this one, not this one). I transferred my audio to the computer, eventually figured out how to edit it, wrote a script that incorporated the sound I’d chose (this was a “cut and script,” a piece in which an anchor reads tracks around soundbites), did a quick edit with one of the other news folks, then uploaded everything to an FTP server to be downloaded for use this morning.

The final product is here (second item in the newscast).

Berkeley: Memorial Stadium


A friend had tickets to last Saturday’s game between the local college’s gridiron squad, the University of California’s Golden Bears, and the top-ranked University of Oregon Ducks. Great game. The local lads almost pulled off an upset before succumbing to the insistent nibbling of the visiting waterfowl (score: 15-13).

There’s construction at the stadium,, which is built directly on a fault at the mouth of a canyon in the Berkeley Hills. The current project doesn’t address the high seismic risk to the stadium. Instead, the university is building a training center for Cal sportsmen and sportswomen (it’s called the Student Athlete High-Performance Center). [Update 11/19: I was wrong about this: the bracing illustrated here is part of the larger stadium renovation project that will get under way in earnest after the season’s final home game, against Washington on November 27. Details here.]

In large part, the new center will be The House that Tedford Built. That’s Jeff Tedford, the coach who ushered in an era of winning football at Cal (eight straight winning seasons, seven straight bowl appearances; both streaks could end this year). The university–the Athletic Department, the administration, and the alumni, not necessarily in that order–were so gaga over Tedford’s prowess that they essentially promised they’d build the training center to get him to stay in Berkeley. Cal is also paying him north of $2 million a year–details of his contract here (PDF)–despite being so strapped for cash it has raised undergraduate tuition about 45 percent over the last three years. That’s big-time college sports.

The stadium construction, though. Well, the temporary measures outside that exterior shell are kind of cool. memorialstadium111310a.jpg

Journal of Self-Promotion


Friday morning, I heard on KCBS, the local all-news AM station, that some students had “taken over” Wheeler Hall, a building on the UC-Berkeley campus. As I wrote our morning news team a note about that, the phone rang. It was one of the morning news team asking whether I could go out and cover the Wheeler Hall story. I said I would.  

When I went out to get in the car, I realized I had a flat tire. I thought of riding my bike, but knew it would be hard to find a secure place to lock it up. As I walked back inside the house to ponder my next move — if I walked or took the bus or BART, I’d miss the air time for the upcoming newscast — I heard the neighbors’ dog barking outside. One of the neighbors in question works for the university–in the news office, actually. I ran outside hoping I could catch a ride to campus with him. I did.

I showed up outside Wheeler to find yellow police tape around the building — it might have taken a quarter mile of tape to do put up that line — and several dozen students with banners who had parked themselves across the main north-south path through campus. In a few minutes, I’d sized up what was happening and had lined up a young woman who said she was one of the protest organizers. She wouldn’t give her name, but said it was OK to call her Jane Doe or Emma Goldman. Yeah, she really said that. We put her on the air. I was on, too–both for one of the newscasts and our longer “Forum” discussion show. One observation: I say “um” and “ahhhhh” a lot.

Here are the links to the audio of these immortal radio (and associated) appearances:

The California Report: UC Students Protest Fee Hike

Forum: Students Occupy UC Berkeley Building

Photo slide show: Wheeler Hall protest

And in other self-promotion news: November 22 marks this blog’s sixth anniversary.

Health Care ‘Debate’: The Complications

By now, most who have a voice — meaning journalists, broadcast rabble rousers, pundits, lobbyists, think tanks, and public officials both elected and unelected — have turned the current attempt to address shortcomings in our health-care system into a Clintonesque quagmire. What ought to be a simple, focused discussion–Everyone must have health insurance as a matter of national well-being. That insurance must not bankrupt anyone. How do we do that?–has become a mash of impenetrable rhetoric and hysterical charges. It’s amusing that the right has even taken to trying to make the problem of the uninsured go away by manipulating numbers. Zap those uncovered folks with a calculator, and they go away!

George Lakoff of the University of California, Berkeley, is a pioneer in the field of cognitive linguistics and an authority on the workings of framing in public debates. His well-publicized take in The Huffington Post is that the president and his people have blown it by making the health-care debate a pure policy discussion. He urges the administration to reframe its health care program “as An American Plan” that “guarantees affordable care for all Americans.” He then proceeds to lay out a messaging strategy to communicate that simple idea. The HuffPost piece is also worth reading for its critique on what Obama’s chief advisors do and don’t get about communicating with the public. If you think Lakoff’s argument is a little lofty and disconnected from reality, bear in mind that in February 2008, long before the issue was decided, he was predicting Obama would win the Democratic nomination and presidency, in large part because of the deftness with which he framed his candidacy. The guy’s got some cred.

Yes, the details of covering all the uninsured and making coverage affordable for everyone are complicated. But making that goal clear and repeating it at every opportunity is probably the only way to overcome the fear-mongering of those who would like to kill the plan and cripple Obama’s presidency.

Undergraduate Notes

In my return to college, one thing I’ve wondered is whether the undergraduate population is as out of it, history and civics-wise, as the periodic headline-grabbing “our kids can’t find Washington, D.C., on a map” studies suggest. Honestly, I haven’t talked enough with my classmates to come to any opinion. As I’ve noted before, the only thing that has really caught my attention is the distractions people readily indulge in class, especially the online kind. In class last week, I was sitting behind a guy who was reading a graphic novel on his laptop while sporadically taking notes on the lecture. Across the aisle, a woman worked on her email most of the hour. No, it wasn’t a great lecture.

Actually, I’ve been noticing something else, too. I’m taking just two classes, so what I see is hardly a basis for sweeping conclusions. But, after 10 weeks I’m pretty sure about this one: most students don’t want to speak in class, period. In both my classes, I have instructors who are given to asking questions of the assembled multitude, then glancing around the room expectantly. Sometimes the questions are obvious, sometimes they’re obscure. It makes no difference: most of the times, these expectant queries meet with silence. No: an uncomfortable silence. Maybe that’s just me: I want to talk, and I love to answer questions (to the point of being a pain in the ass about it, I sometimes think). But in one class of about 150 people, the same three or four or five people seem to do about 75 percent of the student talking; in a discussion section for the same class, it’s the same three out of 15 who speak the most week in and week out. In my Irish history class, the professor designated one full class session to questions about an upcoming paper; when he threw the floor open at the beginning of the hour, the 30 people in the room just stared at him. He said he’d just as soon return to his lecture notes if that’s how we were going to be. A couple of kids finally cracked and said something. (In this case, the professor showed that his idea of a question-and-answer session was a 15- or 20-minute answer to a single question. That left room for about three questions for our 50 minutes together.)

I had to make an appearance in the history department office last week; the advisor, who got her B.A. in her late 30s or early 40s, I think, is pretty talkative. She asked me how things were going. I told her that things are swell–only a minor exaggeration—but that I was puzzled by the reluctance of so many people to participate in class discussions. “They don’t want to look stupid,” she said, and added that she had observed the same thing when she was in class a few years back. It makes sense to me. There are few things worse than looking dumb and uncool in front of your peers. I hate it. Still: to get to Berkeley, you have to be one of those students who does very, very well in high school. Thinking back to high school, many though by no means all of the brightest kids were pretty personable and willing to speak up. I don’t know whether something has happened since then–the competitive grind to get the grades, test scores and extracurricular laurels you need to get to the right school, perhaps–but I feel like something has changed.

And in conclusion: Earlier today I came across a column that touches on this subject (maybe tangentially) by a college journalism professor at Case Western Reserve. My impression is that you have to be pretty sharp to get in there. Anyway, the teacher, Ted Gup, a former investigative reporter, has some harsh things to say about the kids who show up in his class. He starts with an anecdote: how none of the students in his seminar on government secrecy knew what rendition (the CIA kind) means. He continued:

“That instance was no aberration. In recent years I have administered a dumbed-down quiz on current events and history early in each semester to get a sense of what my students know and don’t know. Initially I worried that its simplicity would insult them, but my fears were unfounded. The results have been, well, horrifying.

“Nearly half of a recent class could not name a single country that bordered” Israel. In an introductory journalism class, 11 of 18 students could not name what country Kabul was in, although we have been at war there for half a decade. Last fall only one in 21 students could name the U.S. secretary of defense. Given a list of four countries — China, Cuba, India, and Japan — not one of those same 21 students could identify India and Japan as democracies. Their grasp of history was little better. The question of when the Civil War was fought invited an array of responses — half a dozen were off by a decade or more. Some students thought that Islam was the principal religion of South America, that Roe v. Wade was about slavery, that 50 justices sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, that the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1975. You get the picture, and it isn’t pretty.”

But Gup spends most of the column trying to find a prescription for what ails a society that excels in this paradox: It turns out bright kids, many of whom are perfectly ignorant of the world around them. Here’s the link again: “So Much for the Information Age.”

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Undergraduate Notes

A couple of things I see in class that I didn’t see the last time I was in school (I think our president then was a cardigan-wearing Georgian):

Students who spend entire lecture hours on Facebook: Not to be anachronistic. There was no such thing as Facebook when I was at Cal in 1980. There was no such thing as a laptop. There was no such thing as a wireless network. But all that stuff is here today, and I frequently find myself seated behind students who sit through lecture checking on Facebook, or maybe toggling back and forth between some online entertainment and the notes they are taking. I’ve seen one student repeatedly spend an entire 90-minute session designing some sort of graphics. One young woman spent an entire class period texting on her cellphone; in fact, I wish I could have shot video of her because she was so fast. At least I think she was texting; she might have been playing a game.

Back in the olden days, you could be in class without being there, too: you brought a book or magazine or newspaper to read, or you wrote or doodled or daydreamed or snoozed (I’ve also been impressed by how ostentatiously some of my fellow students are about sleeping in class. Maybe all the instructors understand they are overworked).

Classroom meals: One of my classes has an hourlong discussion section at 1 p.m. every Thursday afternoon. There are about 15 of us in there. One student usually brings in a big takeout meal to tuck into while we ponder the subject of the day. The graduate student instructor who leads the section has never said anything, so I guess it’s an accepted part of the culture.

Classroom swilling: In another class, there’s a very fit-looking guy who sits in the front of the room. He will punctuate the professors lectures by bringing out a plastic gallon jug of water and taking a few good long pulls on it. I’m impressed at his commitment to slake his personal drought; a gallon of water weights 8 pounds, and that’s on top of whatever else he’s bringing to class. He’s obviously serious about his thirst.

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Some weeks back, I think I mentioned that I’m back in school, trying to earn my history degree at UC-Berkeley. I’ll talk more about it soon, I promise. About the dull class that has turned out to be much more engaging than I imagined it could be during that first week. About the very challenging class on linguistics that has me thinking about the merits of going for a pass/not pass grade. About the oddly off-putting experience of a sociology-type class looking at the phenomenon of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, and how I’ve dropped that one.

But for now, this: The week before last, I had to turn in my first paper since the Carter administration. The class is Irish history–I half feel like the native Parisian taking Elementary French, but that’s another story. The paper was to be a reflection on the record that Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th century political sociologist, left of a trip he took through Ireland in 1835. (Do I hear pulses speeding up out there in blogland?)

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First Day of School

First day, first day back in class since 1980: Cognitive Science 101, “Language and Mind.” Despite Thom’s assurances that I might see at least one other gray head in the classroom, everyone else here seems to be honest-to-goodness first go-round undergrads. But since I can sit here and blog, I am not self-conscious (hey, you couldn’t do that the last time I was on campus). [Later: On mature reflection, and to set the record straight, what Thom was telling me when I shared my pre-first-day butterflies with him yesterday was that many of his classes at the University of Oregon have included one person my age or older; he didn’t imply that I’d have any other fogies as company, just that my appearance among students born just before or during the first Bush administration wouldn’t be as freakish as I assumed.]

This first class — it’s 11:08 11:13 11:18 and still no instructor — is something of a crapshoot. I’m waitlisted for it. The classroom is a good-sized one in Cory Hall, in the ever-expanding electrical engineering/computer science quadrant of the campus. The hall seats maybe 200 people. It’s packed. A quarter-hour in and people are still arriving.

(At the same time, I have another potential class happening, a Property and Law lecture, about a five-minute walk away. Right now, Cognitive Science 101 is becoming an exercise in waiting–how long till people just start to bail and go to whatever else they might have to do. Right now, I’d call my first day back an anti-climax.).

[Update: Instructor showed at 11:22, saying that unbeknownst to her, her room assignment had been changed. My education has begun!]


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Class of ‘0-Something

Back from Chicago last night. This afternoon, I walked up to campus — here, that automatically means UC Berkeley — for an appointment with an undergraduate advisor in the College of Letters and Science. Mission: to see what I need to do to finish my bachelor’s degree.

Yes, we have no B.A. I went to school back between 1974 and 1980, but never finished. That never seemed to affect my life or work prospects because I was lucky enough to get real experience right out of high school in a field, daily journalism, that hardly asked what college you went to or what you did there as long as you had the fire and the talent for the work. And for a long time, that was enough. When I left daily print journalism in the mid-90s, my resume was my degree, and for a while, that was enough. But at this point — having bounced around online journalism, TV news, magazine editing and writing, and some marketing stuff, among other things; and having watched that daily print news world I came from wither — I’m thinking of other things I might do (I’m told I’d make a great history teacher if I can avoid scuffling with the students), and that resume is no longer enough. And beside all that, I admit it’s always bothered me a little to have that uncompleted task out there.

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