College Freshmen Are Weaker And Dumber Than Ever Before

Fri 02 October 2015

Last week one of my friends made a social media post to a piece in Psychology Today entitled Declining Student Resilience. The author's basic thesis is that the newly-rising crop of college kids are less emotionally and/or academically ready to handle the challenges that face them as young independent students. The article has reasonable sourcing, mixing anecdotes from professors and administrators with some serious-ish academic studies on the current university climate, but as I was reading the piece, something itched at the back of my mind. I felt like I had, perhaps, read a very similar article before.

Perhaps it was this piece from the New York Times in May 2014, The Streamlined Life?

Or was it Slate in Dec 2013, Why Millenials Can't Grow Up?

I suppose it could have been an older Times piece from Nov 2012, Digital Natives And Their Customs.

And the Washington Post explored similar themes in May 2011, College Freshmen Less Prepared Nowadays

This article could have been written in October 2010 Students are Different Now

Or Feb 2009, Student Expectation Seen as Causing Grade Disputes

Or Sept 2008, Colleges Spend Billions on Remedial Classes to Prep Freshmen

Or August 2007, On Campus, Trying to Connect

Or March 2006, Not Ready for College

Or December 2005, Literacy of College Graduates is on Decline

Or May 2004, Students Offering More Excuses on Late Papers

Or January 2003, College Freshmen Experts at Getting A's

Or November 2002, With Student Cheating on the Rise...

Or December 2001, College Freshmen Lack Basic Skills

Or March 2000, College Students Binge More Frequently

Or September 1999, Some Maryland Freshmen Unprepared, Survey Finds

Or September 1998, College Freshmen Aiming for High Marks in Income

Or August 1997, The Inevitable Call From College Freshmen: Send Money

Or January 1996, College Freshmen Today are Less Interested in Learning

Or April 1995, Many College Freshmen Get Drunk During First Week

Or October 1994, Anxiety 101

So, well, literally every year for the past 20 years. Further back than that gets harder for the internet to remember, but anyone with a LexisNexis subscription should feel free to supplement with examples earlier than 1994.

If you're a college freshman reading one of these pieces about how your generation is dumber and whinier and weaker and drunker than the generation before, try not to take it to heart. Growing into adulthood is full of challenges, but the fact that you've made it this far shows that you've got a lot of talent and determiniation. Build on that, try to wring every drop of experience out of your college years and remain skpetical about the institutions around you. Whether or not you succeed or fail has nothing to do with what some dingbat professor thinks about The Kids These Days.

And if you're a professor, psychologist, columnist, or beat writer and happen to come across this post, please stop writing the same tired bullshit every year. You can do better. And while you're at it, quit with the "Freshman 15" articles as well, those are about as predictable every Autumn as the leaves starting to change color and fall to the earth. I don't know how "Humans Near Adulthood Experience Changes In Body" became a legitimate piece of "news", but I think after 20 years of discussion we're ready to retire that cultural conversation for a bit.

Triple Eight Needs To Get Its Shit Together

Thu 25 June 2015

There's a new campaign bouncing around my social media feed from Triple Eight and Mike Vallely called Get Used To It. In the lead video and accompanying pages, skateboard legend Vallely describes how he's changed his mind after a long career of skating without a helmet and decided to always wear a helmet from now on. The video combines Vallely talking about safety and the evolving culture of skateboarding with some beautiful footage of him skating around New York City, doing tricks, and generally looking awesome. The title of the site comes from his new response to skaters asking why he wears a helmet - "Get Used To It". Viewers are encouraged to always wear a helmet when skating and share that message on social media.

It's no surprise to anyone who has read my site or heard me talk about safety in person that I love the spirit of this campaign. The combination of macho posturing and punk-rock hipsterism among a certain set of skaters that sneer at helmets is toxic and has lead to unnecessary injuries and ruined lives. It's an important step for highly-respected members of that culture like Mike V to come out and give a clearly-spoken argument for change. Mike says that he hopes that "Kids who are starting skating now and wearing helmets now will just stay in them. That the peer pressure will be reversed, that if you take the helmet off you're doing something wrong" and I agree 100%. Obviously there is commerce involved here too - Mike V is presumably a paid spokesman, Triple Eight is trying to sell more helmets - but if the message works, then the changes in culture will benefit everyone.

However, all that good feeling is marred by a massive black mark after a closer look at the video and at Triple Eight's product catalog, because the helmet that Mike V is wearing is Triple Eight's "Brainsaver With Sweatsaver Liner", which is a horrible garbage bullshit excuse for a helmet. This helmet does not meet the CPSC single-impact standards for bicycle helmets, nor does it meet the ASTM multiple-impact requirements for skateboard helmets. It would be illegal for Triple Eight to market this helmet as a "Bicycle Helmet" in the United States, but because no similar law regulates "Skateboard Helmets", they can and do continue to sell it to skateboarders and derby skaters. When non-certified helmets like this are brought to labs by folks like the Athlete Recovery Fund or Wicked Skatewear, those tests show that they transfer twice as much energy to the head compared to certified helmets. More force transfered to the head in an impact means a higher risk of concussion and skull fracture. In fact, in those two separate cases, both parties were told by the lab that they would not test the non-certified helmets from the CPSC standard drop height because to do so would ruin the test equipment.

Now, Triple Eight does sell a Dual Certified version of the Brainsaver helmet, but the non-certified "Sweatsaver" version is much more popular, more heavily marketed, and must be a much better money maker for the company. Using that cynical logic, it makes sense that the non-certified version is the model that Mike V is wearing in the Get Used To It video, but this directly cuts against the video's pro-safety message. Promoting helmet use for safety while simultaneously pushing a substandard, unsafe helmet is bullshit. What's worse, it enables a strain of cynicism I regularly see among skateboarders and derby skaters: the idea that helmets don't really do anything, they're all the same, nothing can prevent concussions so who cares. That attitude leads people to make dumb decisions about their own safety, and Triple Eight should be ashamed for promoting it.

If Triple Eight wants to be serious about promoting safety in the skateboarding community, they should immediately do the following:

  1. Take all non-certified versions of the Brainsaver helmet off the market
  2. Offer a free exchange for a dual-certified helmet to anyone who purchased a non-certified Brainsaver since the start of the Get Used To It campaign
  3. Issue a public apology to the skateboarding and roller derby communities for marketing the Brainsaver With Sweatsaver Liner as long as they have

In the mean time, I recommend that derby skaters and skateboarders wear a dual-certified helmet like the S-One Lifer, Nutcase Skate Helmet, or Bell Segment every time they skate.

We Could Learn A Lot From the Porn Stars

Thu 25 September 2014

Ela Darling is the smartest porn star I know.

Well, actually, she's the only porn star I know personally, but that doesn't mean she isn't really damn smart. I met Ela in college, where we both worked as Resident Advisors. After earning her Masters in Library Science and working as the associate director of a city library for a while, Ela's modeling career opened up opportunites to feature in some pornography, and she's pursued that as her full time career, quite successfully, since then.

It's fun to follow Ela on twitter (Warning: boobs), not only because she's an incredibly kind and clever person, but also because she writes frankly and insightfully about the adult film industry as a profession. She's the Secretary of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee, and has appeared in the mainstream press advocating safety and sanity in how pornographic films and produced and regulated. She talks about mundane scheduling mishaps, marketing strategies, and even web design snafus. Follow for her a while and you'll learn that like most careers that seem exotic or romantic or glamorous, porn is, to those who do it, a job.

It's through following Ela on twitter that I got to witness two different communities handle recent pieces of monumentally bad news:

On August 28, 2014 a pornographic actor in Los Angeles tested positive for HIV.

On September 24, 2014, the "Shellshock" vulnerability was discovered in the bash shell that meant many thousands of linux servers were vulnerable to remote code execution over the internet.

Obviously the porn community and the linux community are very different from one another - aside from the nature of the work, there are a lot fewer pronographic actors than there are sysadmins, and porn production is centered in a few major cities instead of being spread out over the globe - but both of these events represent an "Oh Shit" moment for their respective communities, inspiring the same feelings of nervousness, frustration, and dread. It's useful to see how a community very different from ours processes some of the same emotions and handles something that threatens the lives/livelihoods of its members.

The HIV test turned out to be a false positive, but in the days before that was confirmed, every pornographic actor in LA had to reckon with the chance that they had been directly exposed to HIV. They also had to confront what could have been a weeks-long moratorium on porn production, meaning lost wages and all the attendant life stress. I was heartened, however, to see the APAC release a lovely statement of solidarity to urge calm and caring amongst performers.

Seriously, go read that statement. Notice the compelling language urging performers to band together and take care of one another. Notice the clear call to action "asking all performers to refrain from exchanging body fluids during this moratorium". Notice how the last few paragraphs show that the porn industry, often treated as the scuzzy back-alley of society, can be a source of "reason and stability about sexual health". It's great in terms of PR and it's even better in terms of human decency.

Now compare and contrast that with one of the central sources of information about Shellshock, the Debian Security Page. Everything you need to know about this vulnerability is on there, somewhere, but the two incredibly important bash disclosures are presented in a long list of links on the same level as much more mundane security vulnerabilities. The instructions presented work well enough for those running the latest version of Debian, but people running older versions need to apply patches themselves or google around for how to enable special repositories. Nowhere is it presented in clear language how severe this issue potentially is and how important it is that it be patched as soon as possible.

The Debian page and all the other official sources of information are also missing the humanity that is present in the APAC moratorium message. Nobody is going to contract a deadly disease from Shellshock, but identities will be stolen, jobs will be endangered, and thousands of dollars in business value will disappear into thin air. Engineers will spend many stressful hours on nights and weekends assessing whether or not their systems were compromised and mitigating the damage if they were. The technical details are obviously very important for fixing this situation, but I think we could also use some clearly-worded instructions on what to do and a little empathy for each other. I've seen plenty of engineers trying to help each other, but also far more political points scoring and ur doin it wrong than I'd like. It's times like these that we need to watch out for each other and show the best in ourselves.

Devs and Sysadmins, if you're up late over the next few days fixing this thing, then I feel for you. Good luck.

A Roller Derby Koan

Mon 15 September 2014

With apologies to the Buddhists and the Hackers

The Fresh Meat asks the Veteran, "Should we skip practice to watch the WFTDA tournament today? The local women's team is playing for a slot at Championships"

The Veteran twhaps the Fresh Meat's head and responds: "Of course not! Supporting our friends and watching high-level WFTDA bouts are great, but not nearly as important as improving our endurance and working together as a team. It is practice night - we are going to practice!"

Just then, the Veteran and the Fresh Meat both feel their smartphones buzz.

"Practice is canceled. Everyone meet at the bar to watch the women's bout."

Both the Fresh Meat and the Veteran are enlightened.

I Want to Help You Learn to Code

Sat 13 September 2014

I'm really happy to see that I have a bunch of friends and acquaintances who are learning programming in one way or another. I've helped out informally or privately to a few of my friends who are learning to code, and I've enjoyed it a bunch. One thing I worry when I say something like "Yeah, let me know if I can help out" is that people assume I'm just being nice or think that their programming questions are too boring or basic to actually trouble me with. To show that I'm really serious, I'd like to make the following offer publicly and officially.

The Offer

If you're interested in learning to code, I'd love to help you in any way I can.

How I Can Help

Maybe you are entering college and want advice choosing between Computer Science (CS) or Management Information Systems (MIS) as your major. Maybe you already know some HTML and CSS and want recommendations on a good book to get started in JavaScript. Maybe you work in a programmer-adjacent field like support or IT and want advice on how to make the jump to development. Maybe you are trying to get this goddamned image to center vertically on the page and want me to take a quick look at your stylesheet before you throw your laptop out the window.

Those are the kind of things that I can probably help you with, or at least point you in the right direction.

Why You Might Want to Learn to Code

People want to learn to program for a bunch of different reasons; some good ones include:

  • They heard that writing code is a fun way to stretch your brain
  • They want to learn ways to automate the boring parts of their job so they can focus on something more creative
  • They work with professional programmers at their job and they want to better understand what the programmers are talking about
  • They're interested in programming for a living because they heard it's interesting work that pays well (it is)
  • They've got an idea for an app, game, or website that they'd like to try to bring into existence on their own

Why I want to help

Selfishly, I think my friends are cool and I like helping them acheive their goals and living vicariously through them when they do. The process of explaining something to someone usually makes me stretch my own brain in interesting ways, so I often get as much out of it as the nominal "student" does. Plus, in my experience, this kinda thing usually comes back around eventually.

On a more big-picture level, it's my firm belief that the world is massively, immediately under-supplied in people who know how to write and understand software, and I'd like to do a small part to correct that. This is especially true for people who are members of marginalized groups in our society - women, people of color, gender and sexual minorities, etc. If that describes you, consider my offer to help that much more emphatic.

How to Ask

If a bunch of people end up taking this offer, I might need to come up with some kind of a schedule, but for now, go ahead and email me at an address I set up for my site: Go ahead and send me your code problems.

How To Handle A Phone Full Of Derby Skaters

Sat 30 August 2014

After spending a few years in the roller derby universe, my phone contacts were a goddamned mess. Of course, "meeting too many awesome roller people" is a good problem to have, but it's still a problem. Did I put AWow in my phone as AWow? Or as John? Or maybe I spelled out Apocalypse Wow? Oh wait, I have a "Freight Train" and a "Hunter" with two different phone numbers - what the hell?

Fortunately, there's a hidden but well-supported field in the contacts screen of all major smartphones called "Nickname". It's a little bit of extra work when you first add someone to add both their government name and their derby name, but it makes your life so much easier when you do.

iOS Contact screen showing a search for Egon Strangler

On iOS, you navigate to the contact, tap "Edit", scroll all the way to the bottom, then tap "add field" and select "Nickname". I don't have an Android phone in front of me, but the process is similar there.

If you enter derby people under their government names, but add their derby name as a nickname, you get a couple of handy benefits:

  • You can search for someone by their government name or their derby name and either way the right person pops up.
  • Siri and Google Now will both pick up on the Nickname, so you can say "Call Egon Strangler" and your phone will do the right thing.
  • iOS will by default show derby names in the Messages app (though you can change that), some Android phones will as well but it depends on the phone manufacturer and version.