SAT Schadenfreude: Is Nothing Sacred?

For years only three things were sure – death, taxes and the colossal power of the SAT to determine your destiny. Scores on a pair of test for verbal and math dexterity decided if you’d go to college or not, to a good school or a middling one, make the big bucks or slouch through life a loser.

That was the myth anyway. And paranoid parents would go to any lengths to get little Biff and Betty tops scores, springing for workbooks, prep course and even private SAT tutors. Of course if they’d made sure Biff and Betty read a book (without pictures) every week for the eleven years leading up to the SAT and practiced their math, all that prep and panic might not have been required.

But such was the power of the SAT that strong men quailed and doting mothers wept as it approached. Then in 2005, a crack in the façade. The folks at SAT suggested their test might not be perfect. All those little filled in dots might not adequately measure college aptitude or educational attainment, especially if the billion dollar test prep industry could teach Biff and Betty how to game the test in a few short weeks. So SAT revamped the test, most notably by adding an essay portion.

Consternation among the consumers. Even greater panic. Ye Gods, instead of merely blackening the inside of one of five circles with a #2 pencil, my future might come down to actually having to demonstrate the ability to organize and express thoughts and information through the medium of written English. Unfair! Extreme! Hard! Nobody told us there’d be writing involved in getting through high school and into college.

Now we learn the revised standard SAT has been a debacle. The essays have been stomach-turningly, humiliatingly bad, according to college admissions people and the cadre of graders hired to read them. Worse, the new SAT hasn’t proven any harder for the test prep industry and its affluent clients to manipulate. And it still only tests how well you can take the SAT, not what you learned in high school and doesn’t predict how you’ll do in college as well as your grades.

And once the Imperil SAT admitted it had no clothes on it lost its power to awe and terrify. Many schools have abandoned it for the competing ACT which tests students not just on generic verbal and math skills but on high school subject matter including science. So the SAT is now taken by slightly fewer students than the ACT.

As a result, the SAT folks and not their customers went into a tizzy and have done a desperate reboot, SAT 3.0. The essay is out. Writing is apparently no longer relevant or seeing how badly students do it is too painful to confront. Do U know what I mean or R U 2 stupid?

Hard vocabulary words are also out and test questions have been devised to include a nod to science and obscure historical texts like The Declaration of Independence (many written using those now banned hard words).

In short, the SAT has dumbed itself down so today’s generation won’t have to prove it can write or read material that is polysyllabic. It is claimed this is an attempt to adapt to the times. Well, it is — if that means pandering to win back customers from the competition. But it is unlikely to work. Once the wizard is revealed to be a humbug from Omaha, the jig is up. Fear made the SAT powerful. Now that the test is no longer magic, it can no longer terrify.

There’s a bit of schadenfreude in this for those who kowtowed so long before the SAT idol, but it doesn’t really help students figure out how to get into a good school or do well there. It would be nice if the conversation would shift from which test to take and how to outwit it to how to become better educated, but don’t count on it because the answers to that are, well, hard.

Read more. Write more. Do math and science, especially biological and computer science one would suppose. Foreign languages too. Chinese may be especially useful if our schools don’t improve. Learn about the history of the world and its arts, sciences, religions and beliefs without the school board imposing its politics on the curriculum. Hire good teachers and pay them well. Hold them to high standards. Same for the students. Will that happen? For the lucky or prosperous few, it always has. For the vast majority? Not so much.

The Social Media that Ate Tuesday

Here’s a confounding statistic that was recently reported. The average user of Social Media – facebookers, texters, sexters, egotrippers, twits – spends over two hours a day doing it.

Whatever it is. Sending photos, like Anthony Weiner? Narrating their own life, second by second? “Now I am brushing my teeth. Now I am rinsing. Now I am walking the dog. Now I am getting arthritic thumbs telling you I am standing in line to purchase anti-inflammatory drugs for my thumbs.”

The big question isn’t what these folks find to Social Mediate about? Long ago Parkinson noticed that work expands to fill the time available. Well, so does trivia and self-regard. No, the real question is where the daily two and a half hours came from. Before there were tweets and facials (I guess that’s what a Facebook post is called), what occupied those hours? No extra time has been added to the day so Media-istas must have cut an equivalent amount of time out of something else.

Cooking actual meals instead of boiling or nuking frozen pouches of food? Studying? “OMG that must have been awful in the olden days when you were learning things when you could have been sharing on-line gossip with Tiffany and Brittany about Brad.” But Tiffany and Brittany used to gossip about Brad just as much before Social Media. They just did it face-to-face or over the Princess phone so that’s probably a wash.

Maybe the answer is that nothing has been dropped to permit Social Media to claim hours a day. Instead, maybe people are Social Mediating during the same hours that they always spent bathing, playing sports, watching TV, driving or working. They are just texting or tweeting or burbling simultaneously. They are multi-tasking.

This might be some sort of evolution of the human species if it was possible. Unfortunately, humans don’t actually appear to be very good at multitasking. You have probably noticed this in the case of all those Media users behind the wheel who go too slow or too fast, weave from land to lane and go on red and stop on green.

Similarly, people sending texts or playing games with friends in Fiji or burbling on their phones at the same time they are supposed to be waiting on customers seem not to be performing at the peak of their abilities. You can spot this by their glazed expression and the fact that you have been waiting for help for the last 20 minutes. Also by how annoyed they are when you interrupt their electronic social life to offer to exchange your money for their products.

Still, there might be a silver lining to the brain-sapping, productivity-destroying, dehumanizing effects of Social Media. After all, there are 1.6 million traffic accidents a year attributable to cell phone users talking and texting while driving. So maybe Social Media is nature’s way of culling the herd. Except the texters may be the ones to survive while mowing down innocent Socially Unmediated people in crosswalks. In which case, it’s the end of civilization.

Damn you, Zuckerberg!

He Was Legend

The annual obituary montage at the Academy Awards included lot of familiar faces and several high wattage stars, foremost among them, perhaps, Peter O’Toole and Philip Seymour Hoffman. But one name that was probably unfamiliar to most viewers brought me fond, creepy, weird memories.

Richard Matheson died last June at 87. He wasn’t an actor but rather a novelist, short story and screenwriter. The name may not ring a bell, but how about “I Am Legend” aka “The Omega Man,” “Duel,” “Hell House,” “The Night Stalker, “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” ”Stir of Echoes,” “Somewhere in Time,” and “What Dreams May Come?”

Matheson did his most famous work from the 1950s through the 1970s and was part of a group of California writers many of whom served in World War II, worked briefly in the state’s many defense and tech companies, the precursors of silicon valley, and wrote science fiction, fantasy and horror stories.

Unlike Golden Age sci-fi writers like Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke, these guys cared less about the science than the uncanny, the odd and the funny. Like others of their generation, including Vonnegut and Heller, they found their audience less among their contemporaries than among their kids, the boomer generation of TV watchers.

Matheson’s single most influential work is probably “I Am Legend,” filmed multiple times starring Vincent Price, Charlton Heston and Will Smith. There has been a strange plague and our protagonist may be the last man on earth. Everyone else has been transformed into nocturnal, bloodthirsty creatures which behave a lot like the vampires of legend. He hides by night and kills them by day.

Stephen King in a tribute at the time of Matheson’s death said Matheson revivified creepy old tropes by setting them not in “European castles…but in American scenes I knew and could relate to.” King also noted that without “I Am Legend” “there would have been no “Night of the Living Dead”…“Walking Dead,” “28 Days” or “World War Z.”

But there was more to Matheson’s effects than merely making spookiness contemporary. In his work, the tale often depends for its effect on a sly O. Henry twist, an unexpected turning of the premise upside down, no more so than in “Legend.” It ends with the hero captured by the vampires and the realization that they have become the norm and he is regarded as we might a vampire, a terrifying presence who tracks them down as they sleep in order to kill them. Black is white and white is black and the reader is suddenly disoriented.

No wonder Matheson found a place on “The Twilight Zone’ where he, Charles Beaumont and creator Rod Serling wrote the lion’s share of over 100 episodes. Matheson accounted for almost 20 and also seems to have had a place in the writers’ room editing the work of others. His most famous episodes include the iconic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” in which an airline passenger sees a strange creature on the wing tearing the airplane to pieces – fear of flying made flesh. An episode in which the owner of a broken boxing robot dresses up as a mechanical man in order to win a purse so he can repair the robot became the recent “Real Steel.” “Third from the Sun” and “The Invaders” also turn the tables on the audience by revealing the bad guys are the good guys or the aliens are us. This figures in a man who, according to his son, kept a sign above his desk saying, “That which you think becomes your world.”

Thus, his work often combined suspense with ironic comedy or a kind of surreal or Escher universe in which conventional wisdom is turned on its head. It often also mocked the conventions of the form. In “The Night Stalker” the crusading reporter is on the trail of a serial killer, but the reporter is so disreputable and hungry for a byline that even his editor doesn’t believe him when the killer turns out to be a vampire.

A touch of the surreal also figures in “Duel,” the first film ever directed by Spielberg. In it, a man driving on a bucolic back road is overtaken by a huge fire-breathing semi truck that tries to kill him. We never see more of the driver than a hairy forearm sticking out the window. The film proceeds at a breakneck pace as the driver repeatedly loses the truck only to have it reappear ominously in his rearview mirror for another attempt to destroy him. It’s a short step from “Duel” to “Jaws.” All it lacks is the thrumming signature music every time the machine hoves into view.

No wonder he was beloved by the generation of Spielberg and King and Lucas. Sunny, suburban, Cold War America was awash in terror. Machines were not our friends. Science was suspect. Heroes could turn out to be bad guys and vampires their sympathetic victims. Moral ambiguity was the order of the day as in “The Twilight Zone” episode entitled “Button, Button” in which a struggling husband and wife are offered a chance to receive millions if they push a button on a box that will cause someone they don’t know to drop over dead. Best of all, his work was often scary and funny at the same time. Matheson did not practice high art, but his work was pop art of a high order, and few of those he inspired have done it better.