Friday, December 01, 2017

Finding Redemption at Shawshank

Spoilers ahead; the plot has secrets in it that you may not wish to know if you haven't seen it yet.

I recently watched The Shawshank Redemption (1994) again; I haven't seen it since the mid 90s when it released. It has held up well, and I liked it better than the last time I saw it. The pacing is superb, the ambience has just the right amount of gray, and the story is suitably affecting. This time around, I discovered that it's a much more nuanced film than I once thought it was. I'll just talk about two related points to illustrate this.

First, the happy ending with Red finding Andy on the beach always bothered me. It didn't seem in keeping with the rest of the film's dingy esthetics. But this time through, I noticed that just before the shot of Andy driving his convertible down the coast of Mexico, Red says, "When I picture him heading south in his own car with the top down, it makes me laugh all over again." This isn't really Andy driving... it's Red imagining Andy driving. I infer then that the final scene of them on the beach is also Red's imagination. Hold this thought while I discuss a second point.

There's a pair of scenes that indicate how Red will meet any attempt to change him with quiet resistance. They're out in the yard playing checkers, and Andy comments that Chess is a better game. After Red suggests that it's a mystery, Andy offers to teach him how to play. The subject of them playing games is dropped for quite some time, then in a subsequent scene, after an interval of 10-20 years, they are again playing checkers. There's no fanfare about this; it's a subtlety not often seen in Hollywood film. But it is very important.

If you didn't know, the "redemption" referred to in the title is that of Red (Morgan Freeman), not Andy (Tim Robbins). Andy never loses hope, and pushes patiently until he escapes. When Andy talks of Red's eventual release, Red just says, "I'm an institutional man now." This refers to Brooks, the old guy who was the librarian and spent 50 years in the prison. They talked of Brooks as an "institutional man"; someone who had been there so long, the walls had come to be necessary in his life. He had no idea how to live once he got out, and killed himself. Red even explicitly warns Andy about hope and how it's just a hurtful thing.

After Andy's escape, Red is finally paroled and goes through the same motions as Brooks did, working the same job and even living in the same apartment. The second checkers scene prepares us for him to take the same way out. But instead, he decides to go looking for Andy. That is the redemption.

The final scene being imagined and pristine is the best possible depiction of the redemption: it shows Red's newfound ability to imagine a better possible life for himself. Whether or not it really happens is completely irrelevant. He has regained hope, and that's what matters.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Establishment Clause

Remember that we are always in the process of determining what America is. If you believe that the Constitution was meant to protect *everyone* and not just whoever happens to be the majority at the time, then you have to fight with those who don't understand that fundamental fact.

Notably this part of the First Amendment, known as the Establishment Clause:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

The Establishment Clause is a limitation placed upon the United States Congress preventing it from passing legislation respecting an establishment of religion. The second half of the Establishment Clause inherently prohibits the government from preferring any one religion over another.

That we undermined this with the "In God We Trust" business in 1956 because of the Red Scare is proving detrimental to peoples' understanding of what the EC means. We should go back to "E Pluribus Unum", which is something we can all get behind, regardless of religious affiliation (or unaffiliation, as the case may be).

"Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it." This is not just some random collection of words, it explains what happens in human communities over and over again.

Do your part to understand what the Constitution means, and how it has granted us the freedoms we have. And then, armed with that knowledge, help your fellow Americans understand it so that we can all move forward together. Dark forces are all around, hoping to deprive us of our freedoms. Don't let them win.

Monday, November 02, 2015

The state of education in the United States

I just heard this from a professor I know:

I was down talking with one of our faculty that teaches Math for Elementary Teachers; it's getting scary---many of these kids can't do the skills they are going to be teaching.

My son can explain why the standard algorithm works for, say, multiplication of multiple-digit numbers. These kids can't do the skill reliably, much less explain why it works.

The kicker is that we're trying to teach these pre-adults the models that I used to show my son why multiplication works the way it does---and they still can't do it reliably.

We're letting in kids that have no business getting a university degree and saddling them with lots of debt that they will not be able to discharge. Many of them don't really want to be here in the first place, but this is what they've been told they have to do, and they can't think of anything else.

So, they're just continuing the tricks that got them through public school (without learning anything, I might add...).

And there are rumors that universities are going to be funded based on completion rates. High schools are already being assessed on the percentage of their graduates that go on to universities, so they're incentivized to get their students to come. Banks and such are incentivized to give the students loans. And we're about to be incentivized to give them a diploma. This, kids, is how bubbles are made.

You know how there were those guys that saw what was happening in the sub-prime mortgage market and bet against it? Bet against student loans.
This person is not prone to making dire prognostications. But I was chilled when I read that last sentence: "Bet against student loans."

I've read Michael Lewis's excellent book, The Big Short about the 2008 sub-prime mortgage bubble. I highly recommend reading that book if you haven't. It describes (in plain language with entertaining accounts of the people involved) how incentivizing banks to loan money to people for houses they couldn't afford was the thing that was at the heart of getting that crisis rolling. "Bet against student loans" brought that whole mess back to mind instantly.

If we produce a generation of students who cannot find the employment they need to pay back their loans, it will be much more than just a financial crisis (as of 2014, total student loan debt in the US was at $1.2 trillion). It will be a crisis of the collapse of the fundamental infrastructure of any society: its people.

In a species such as humans which cannot pass on biologically much of what our children need to survive, nothing is more important to a civilization's long-term survivability than education. We need highly educated people to keep our society running and pushing forward.

I don't know what the solutions are to this problem. But I say that it is one of the largest problems facing us today, along with global warming and rising income inequality.