The 13th

I just watched Ava DuVernay’s documentary, the 13th on Netflix (coincidentally, it is the 13th of October).  After a few students in my Racial Inequality class commented that it was a great documentary (note: when twenty-somethings say a documentary is good…you better watch…it must be remarkable).  The documentary is about the hows and whys of the disproportionate presence of black people in American prisons.

It is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen.

It starts with an historical overview, dating back from Emancipation, describing how black peoples have been stereotyped, surveilled and sentenced.  The obligatory Birth of a Nation scenes are shown and discussed, the Civil Rights Movement is given its due.  But the documentary really shines when it moves to the political and corporate roots of the  post 60’s “Tough on Crime” stance in American society.  No stone is left unturned and no prominent voice is left out.  If one wanted to know who the main voices in the prison reform movement are, one couldn’t do any better than jotting down the people interviewed in this documentary.

As an academic who studies social media, I listened intently to the last 20 minutes or so, where the documentary talks about the  use of media to, as one of the interviewees said, “show the humanity of black peoples”.  The line was drawn from writings and autobiographies to photographs of lynchings to the strategic use of television by the Civil Rights Movement (e.g. dogs sicced on kids, fire hoses trained on weaponless marchers) to finally the use of mobile phones documenting instances of police brutality.

There are quite a few negatives to ripping snapshots from everyday life out of context and posting them online for everyone to see.  But for so many decades the weight of the state on black people has been unseen and overlooked.  But new technologies level the playing field somewhat between individuals and the state.  People have seen police brutality – even though it is decontextualized – close up and personal, and this has made it impossible to be overlooked.  Black peoples (as well as women, sexual minorities, immigrants, and other groups who are not a part of the privileged set) have a means of speaking truth to power.

In any case, The 13th is in my view one of the best documentaries ever produced.  It is a must see.

Sheldon, Frasier, and Putting Roots on STEMS

Over the past year I have worked my way through almost all of the episodes of the 90’s sitcom Frasier.  I owe it all to Netflix.  The show is still funny to me.  One of the reasons why the show was such a hit during its heyday, and why I like it now, is the comedy generated from the snootiness  of the Crane brothers – the titular character and his younger brother Niles.  They were ivy-league educated, made constant references to classical music and literature, and were always drinking sherry out of little tiny glasses that if I had their training I would know the name of.  A typical scenario: Frasier, a radio show host, has been pranked several times by a pair of shock jocks who work alongside him.  One one occasion they trick Frasier into singing on the radio.  Frasier says “two can play at that game” and attempts to settle the score by writing a monologue filled with references to Plato, Shakespeare, and God knows who else and reciting it in front of the shock jocks.   Of course this is ridiculous.  You cannot combat grown men who make a living getting people to fart on air with verbose quotes from Aristotle.  That’s why it’s funny.

I'm working my way through all the old episodes of Frasier.   Frasier is an egg-head, but a well adjusted one.

I’m working my way through all the old episodes of Frasier. Frasier is an egg-head, but a well adjusted one.

I’ve also caught a few episodes of  The Big Bang Theory, the current popular comedy about overeducated people being all awkward.  I like this show too, and when it is available on Netflix I’ll gobble it up.  But although Sheldon, Leonard, and the rest of the guys are all egg-heads like Frasier and Niles, the comedy derived from their nerdiness is a bit different.

The comedy generated from the Big Bang Theory  occurs because the characters, especially Sheldon, knows far too much about hard science.  A typical Sheldon comment:  “there should be a raisin to flake ratio in my cereal of 1 to 17 for maximum taste, the same ratio of black holes to quasars found in the Ardunas Galaxy, plutonium molecules to selenium molecules in a Star Trek stun gun…”.  But a lack of understanding of the softer arts of human relationships leads to trouble – “I am experiencing a biochemical reaction in my brain that is leading to some uncomfortable physiological reactions…you may call it…being horny.”  They are stereotypical nerds – right down to the way they dress and their clumsiness with women.

I wouldn't say that the egg-heads in the Big Bang Theory are well adjusted.  Maybe it is because they were STEM majors?

I wouldn’t say that the egg-heads in the Big Bang Theory are well adjusted. Maybe it is because they placed too much emphasis on STEM?


Frasier, on the other hand, has his awkward moments – a common joke is his complete ignorance of sporting events – but by and large you can imagine him fitting in quite well with the “people of average intelligence”.  He could take his knowledge of Shakespeare, Verdi, and Beckett and apply it to any situation that arises.

Thinking about these two shows made me think about our nation’s push to increase the number of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) graduates, and where we could be making some missteps.  Let me explain…