Michael Has Left The Building

Like much of the rest of the world — or at least that segment of it that cares about such things — I was shocked by the unexpected death of Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, last week.  News of the passing of Farrah Fawcett saddened me as well.  (The Pinup of My Generation had the misfortune of crossing the River Styx on the same day as MJ, and thus received diminished press coverage.)  Her death was actually more disheartening to me — perhaps because she had lost her struggle against cancer.  And though it may be harsh to say it, one expects — at some deep, dark, unspeakable level — that cancer is going to win most of those heroic battles.

MJ’s final departure from the stage was stunning because he, unlike Farrah Fawcett, was a part of my life almost from the moment I became aware of popular culture.  My cool cousins who lived in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D. C. had Jackson 5 albums on 8-track cassette.  (I listened to the songs so much that even today, I remember when the cassette player would “click” as it switched tracks during the music.)  I watched the Jackson 5 cartoon on TV and saw “The Wiz” in the movie theater.  And years later, as a student at a residential high school for North Carolina’s freaks and geeks, I sat spellbound in a crowded and hushed room as MJ’s “Billie Jean” premiered on MTV, then a fledgling upstart cable channel that previously had only played music videos by White artists.  From that point onward, my life could be divided into two epochs: BMJ (Before Michael Jackson) and AMJ (After Michael Jackson).  Okay, perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration; but his music was the soundtrack of my adolescence.

The King of Pop’s personal eccentricities and later scandals, when I cared to take note of them, were in turns amusing and deeply troubling.  But the thing that really grafted MJ to my cultural DNA was his brief marriage to Lisa Marie Presley.  Elvis is the real musical love of my life; and though I participated in the joking about MJ’s relationship with Lisa Marie, I was secretly jealous of him for having wooed and won the daughter of the King.

All of this is my long-winded way of saying that I had foolishly believed, like most people in my generation, that MJ would always be with us .  We would grow old together and someday — many decades from now — die together.  None of us expected MJ to check out early.

Our 24-hour news and entertainment cycle is, at least for the moment, obsessed with measuring MJ’s impact on music, culture, and society.  That is well and proper as he was a figure of global stature, whether or not we wanted that to be the case.

But there is a small part of me that hopes against hope that the King of Pop is not really dead.  Maybe he just got tired of it all and decided finally to accept Elvis’ offer to join him at his villa in Argentina.  Rumor has it that Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina had a good time there.

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Let’s Do It!

“Birds do it.  Bees do it….Probably we’ll live to see machines do it.”  Cole Porter wrote his classic toe-tapper “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)” in 1928, decades before the first computer and the birth of what we now call AI (Artificial Intelligence, not the basketball star Allen Iverson).  Yet he somehow foresaw a time when machines would not only think like human beings; they would also fall in love and—presumably—have sex like humans as well.  That makes me wonder if Porter, another proud Yale Man like yours truly, was a visionary like the British mathematician and computer science founder Alan Turing—or just a pervert ahead of his time.  Or maybe he was just after a clever song lyric—of which he was an absolute master.

Anyway, suppose that we do someday create machines that can fall in love with each other and quite “naturally” desire some type of “physical intimacy.”  What would that look like?  Would computers overload their servers with streams of erotic (to them, at least) code?  Would there be such a thing as computer porn?  Would humans pay to see it?  (Of course we would.)  Would global networks crash as the supercomputers that control every aspect of our modern, continually-connected lives spend all of their time generating real cyber-porn instead of working?  Would computers want to marry and reproduce?  Would computers be a single gender or some new binary conception of heterosexuality?  Or would they cast off the concept of gender entirely?  Would some computers be homosexual?  Would same-sex relationships between computers be allowed?

Cole Porter and his wonderful little tune really open up a can of worms for us.  How are we going to deal with the coming onslaught of super-intelligent, love-struck, and horny machines who want equal rights—and can freeze our bank accounts and shut down the Internet?

Literature and popular culture are awash with works that examine the uneasy relationship between people and machines that see themselves as something more than their human creators had intended.  Two favorite examples come immediately to mind.  In his classic 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick explores the meaning of humanity and the moral consequences of ridding society of synthetic beings (androids) who appear human in every meaningful respect.  At the other extreme, The Terminator franchise imagines a world in which sentient machines decide to exterminate humanity.  Between these two poles of annihilation fraught with moral ambiguity, Cole Porter’s quaint notion of machines falling in love sounds, well, de-lovely.

Land of the Lost

A couple of weekends ago a friend and I saw Will Ferrell’s new movie Land of the Lost, which is based upon Sid and Marty Krofft’s classic Saturday morning TV series in the 1970s.  The movie hit all of the right notes: it paid the appropriate amount of homage to its source material and contained enough wry self-mockery to keep the viewer from getting too nostalgic for the days when dinosaurs, obese black kids, and talking Great Danes were about as raunchy as cartoon fare got.  The capstone of the cinematic experience was, of course, Will Ferrell, whose reverence for and mastery of physical comedy makes him an indisputable heir to such legendary comedians as Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and Don Knotts.  Indeed, Ferrell’s gleeful willingness to use his flabby, pasty, middle-aged body as his central prop was a welcome reminder that human actors will always be superior to their CGI counterparts, no matter how amazingly life-like the latter may be.

The premise of the film is simple: disgraced scientist Ferrell and his companions are stranded accidentally in a place where time has no meaning and where creatures and artifacts from other eras and planets are dumped as casually as a fast food wrapper.  Our heroes must then survive the myriad of perils confronting them in this “land of the lost” and find a way to return home, restore their reputations, and make a fortune through self-promotion.  I laughed.   I cried.   I wondered if a world like the Land of the Lost could actually exist.  It did not take me long to realize that this alien dimension was, in fact, quite real.   We know it, however, by a different name: Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Now before fire and brimstone begin to rain down upon my head—and I assure you, Dear Reader, that it will—let me make a few things clear.   First, my parents and nearly all of my siblings graduated from HBCUs, as have many of my closest friends and most valued colleagues.  I began my academic career at one of the most respected HBCUs in the country.  And I have spent most of my professional life working on behalf of HBCUs by helping secure the financial, human, and intellectual resources they need to achieve their collective mission of providing education and opportunity to a population whose needs and potential have been ignored and underserved by majority institutions of higher learning.  Indeed, it is my wide experience with HBCUs that gives me the confidence to say that they embody some of the signature traits of the Land of the Lost.

For instance, the Land of the Lost is ruled by a cantankerous dinosaur, a Tyrannosaurus rex nicknamed “Grumpy”.  Likewise, many HBCUs are governed by “tyrant kings”—presidents whose philosophies and leadership styles are tragically out of step with the needs and responsibilities of the modern university.  They foster cults of personality (theirs), eschew transparency of process, and stifle debate and the free exchange of ideas among the faculty.

And what of the faculty?  They are the Sleestak, the lizard-like humanoids who inhabit the Land of the Lost.   Like the Sleestak, which are confined primarily to their subterranean realm, HBCU faculty members are prisoners of crushing teaching loads and the demands of innumerable departmental and university committees.  Rarely are they able to escape these duties and engage in the research and scholarship from which new knowledge flows.

That leaves the students at HBCUs and the prickliest analogy of all.  They are the Pakuni, the primitive, ape-like creatures who resemble human ancestors. I do not nor would I ever suggest that HBCU students—or any students, for that matter—are apes.  For me, the Pakuni represent innocence and potential.  When exposed to the right opportunities at the right moments, the Pakuni demonstrate the capacity to learn, adapt, and excel beyond what would normally be expected of them.  By and large, such has been my experience teaching and working with students at HBCUs.  However, they have also exhibited some of the less favorable traits of the Pakuni: a profound reluctance to defy group (or parental) expectations, a suspicion of new ideas that challenge established systems of belief, and a selfishness that is too often promoted and rewarded by society.

Brighter minds than mine have debated whether HBCUs still have a role to play in our “post-racial” society.  Both sides have made compelling arguments; and I doubt that I could add much.  I do believe that HBCUs should compete in the modern educational marketplace.  However, these institutions can no longer rely solely upon their historical and moral mission to survive in the twenty-first century.  HBCUs must embrace the best practices in leadership and governance, institutional advancement, faculty development, and student retention.  They must be relentlessly creative in making education relevant and continue to be a fearless advocate for those whom society would consign to the abyss of hopelessness.

If HBCUs fail in these vital tasks, they will be trapped forever in a time-warp.  And they would deserve to be.

Montgomery County Prison Blues

I hear the train a comin’
It’s rollin’ ’round the bend,
And I ain’t seen the sunshine,
Since, I don’t know when,
I’m stuck in Folsom Prison,
And time keeps draggin’ on,
But that train keeps a-rollin’,
On down to San Antone.

— Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues”

I go to prison every day. For once, I am not speaking in metaphor; and I am not trying to be clever, which I certainly am. I do not own a car, so I ride the 93 Bus from my apartment in Collegeville to Norristown. One of the stops as the bus meanders through the countryside of Montgomery County (“Montco” to those in the know) is the Montgomery County Correctional Facility. The bus slows down at the checkpoint; and the guard waves it through: no drug-sniffing dogs or mirrors passed under the vehicle – a good thing, as we are on a schedule. The bus stop is just a few yards from the main prison building, a low brick structure that in many ways looks like a high school. Coincidence?

I watch the people who stream onto and off the bus and wonder about them. Do they work at the prison? Are they here to visit someone incarcerated inside? Is the prison a symbol of hope (i.e., employment) or a reminder of how their lives have gone tragically wrong? There are young African American and Hispanic men who laugh and joke with each other; and young White men talking loudly about how hard it is to get a job and keep making child support payments. There is even one guy in a wheelchair who reminds me of the Fonz: complete with the white T-shirt, leather jacket, and pompadour hairdo. There are also women: usually thin White women with bad teeth and stringy hair—modern-day molls who have seen much better days. Or have they?

I am seized by the sudden realization that these people have experienced a segment of life that has never occurred to me. And worse, for me at least, is the fear someone might assume that—because I am on this bus—I too might have some connection to or business at the prison. The very thought shakes my Ivy League-educated, card-carrying elitist self to the core. I clutch my laptop bag tighter, as if it is some sort of ancient talisman that will protect me from demons. I try not to look at anyone else and promise myself that I will start saving money to buy a car. Right after I get a Venti coffee at Starbucks.

Greetings from the Philadelphia Negro

Now that I have your attention, we should get a few things straight:

1.  I took the name of my blog from W.E.B. DuBois’ classic book: The Philadelphia Negro, A Social Study.  Now he was an intellectual.

2.  I am African American, a very liberal Republican (in the mold of the late Jack Kemp); and yes, I voted to elect President Barack Obama.

3. I am not a native of Philadelphia.  I am a Southerner, from North Carolina.  I have a Ph.D. in early American history (Princeton) and have been drawn to Philadelphia from the moment I read the first lines of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

4.  I am interested in literature, history, science, music, and just about everything else.  I intend to write about it all.  Do yourself a favor and do not try to find a pattern in my posts.

5.  I look forward to thinking and writing about things, and to hearing from anyone who might be interested in the same stuff.

Thanks.