Review of Degrees of Inequality (2014)

Mettler, S. (2014). Degrees of inequality: How the politics of higher education sabotaged the American dream. Philadephia: Perseus Books. ISBN: 978-0-465-04496-2

Suzanne Mettler’s book Degrees of Inequality is sub-titled, “How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream.” What is most satisfying about this text is its focus on the often mysterious how; politicians and media talking heads are constantly speculating on the why behind political actions, but the intricate mechanisms of how are often unknown or simply ignored as unimportant. The picture that slowly develops as Mettler’s tome builds towards its crescendo – the housing market crash and the window of opportunity it permits for reform (roughly, 2007-2011) – is a dark one, dominated by a trinity of villains: untended policy, political polarization, and plutocracy. And while the author provides ample evidence of both how higher education is still an essential part of the American Dream and that the “sabotage” of that dream has been conducted primarily by our elected representatives, what she does not offer in ample supply are solutions. Thus, this reader is left with the feeling that his worst fears have been confirmed: yes, there are monsters in the basement; and no, there is no way to kill them.

Mettler elaborates on a thesis that few of us involved in higher education administration would disagree with; that is, that partisan politics, not a dearth of good ideas or reform initiatives, have undermined the progress and promise of post-WW II higher education reforms like the GI Bill and the Higher Education Act of 1965. According to Mettler, political polarization, especially since 1994, has led to an unwillingness in both parties to participate in basic policy maintenance, allowing effective policies to “drift” into ineffectiveness (e.g. student aid that has failed to keep up with rising tuition costs), and for unintended consequences (e.g. growth of for-profit colleges), policy design flaws (e.g. Pell Grants have no cost-of-living adjustments), and the effects of other, unrelated policies (e.g. the rising costs of K-12, prisons, and Medicare in the states) to re-shape what Mettler refers to as the “policyscape” and, sometimes, work against their intended purposes.

The author contends, rather effectively, that partisan rancor has resulted in a virtual plutocracy — a government by, and for, the wealthy — and in a higher education system that clearly privileges the already privileged. Equal access does not mean equal success, and Mettler demonstrates that this is even truer today than it was 40 years ago, as gains in retention and graduation rates among students from middle and low income families have not kept pace with those experienced by students in the top quartile of family income; among some groups of students, including African-American and Hispanic college students in the lower two quartiles, retention and graduation rates are actually lower than they were decades ago.

While Mettler’s book closes on a note of hope, speculating on how the “reform window” that existed in 2007-2011 might lead to eventual opportunities for greater reform, the overwhelming message of this book is that, while the U.S. needs more college graduates than ever before to remain a global economic and political power, the political gridlock of partisanship has made LBJ’s dream of Americans having access to “all the education they can take” a still-distant goal.

I selected this book because I felt that the author’s views were likely similar to my own regarding how the many inequalities inherent in our current higher education system have been created, and exacerbated, by the influence of moneyed interests, thoughtless political expediency, and bitter partisanship. While Mettler’s book isn’t revalatory in terms of content, the author does go into a satisfying degree of depth regarding the causal factors in this scenario; in addition, Mettler provides analysis of empirical data, such as state spending trends, matriculation and graduation rates, and income differentials, that strengthen her arguments in some illuminating ways.

For instance, I was unaware of spending mandates in K-12, prisons, and Medicare that help to “squeeze” higher education funding on the state level. I was also ignorant regarding the fact that tax deductions related to higher education are a drain on direct aid like Pell Grants, as well as an example of a policy that promotes inequality, as it strongly favors families with incomes between $100,000 and $200,000 per year who have sufficient income to take advantage of the deductions. While I knew that default rates on federally-backed loans for students at for-profit colleges were higher than those for students at public and non-profit privates, I was unaware of the complex web of support, complicity, and opportunism that included elements of both parties and existed to ensure continued federal support of for-profits in Congress.

All things considered, the elements of Mettler’s book and argument that are likely to stick with me are the many voices she used to connect the idea of the “American Dream” to higher education. At various times she quotes or references founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and no portion of this book is more powerful than the introduction to Chapter Two, where the author invokes the words of President Lyndon Johnson on the occasion of signing the Higher Education Act of 1965 into law. Speaking to those gathered to watch the signing at Southwest Texas State College, his alma mater, Johnson stated:

And when you look into the faces of your students and your children and your grandchildren, tell them that you were there when it began. Tell them that a promise has been made to them. Tell them that the leadership of your country believes it is the obligation of your Nation to provide and permit and assist every child born in these borders to receive all the education that he can take. (as cited in Mettler, 2014, p. 51)

What I found the most frustrating regarding Mettler’s book was that, beyond opportunities available in response to economic crises and a call for strong individual leadership (as exemplified in the text by politicians like President Johnson and, more recently, Jim Webb), the author offers no clear solution to the “fine mess’ we’ve gotten ourselves into. While access to higher education has increased, the advantages gained by the completion of a college education are still not available for those in the greatest need of those advantages: minorities, the poor, and working class adults. The only changes that could provide a meaningful window for higher education reform are those that are tremendous in scale: campaign finance reforms, electoral reforms, procedural reforms in the Senate and House. As the author points out, the United States has never lacked for “innovative ways to promote higher education so that it would serve crucial and ambitious public purposes” (p. 200). Innovation, however, requires the oxygen of opportunity in order to thrive, and the “policyscape” Mettler describes is an airless one.



Man Poses as Target on Facebook to Hilariously Troll Angry Customers

Originally posted on TIME:

When customers started angrily commenting on Target’s Facebook page about its new gender-neutral toys policy, this Facebook user saw a comedic opportunity.

Mike Melgaard made a fake Facebook page and pretended to be a Target customer service representative, and then responded to the outrage over the company’s decision to stop labeling toys and other items by gender.

“I definitely side with Target and support their decision wholeheartedly,” Melgaard told AdWeek. “That being said, this was, for me, more about the laughs. I absolutely love satirical humor, and I think America could use a little more laughter.”

Target provided this statement to AdWeek in response: “At Target, we are committed to providing outstanding guest service to our guests wherever we engage with them—in our stores, online, or on our social pages. Clearly this individual was not speaking on behalf of Target.”

Here’s some of Melgaard’s best work before his…

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7 Things About “The League” Cast that You Probably Didn’t Know

Originally posted on UPROXX:

If you’re not watching “The League,” or at the very least, if you don’t have the show in your Instant Netflix queue yet, then you don’t get to sit at the cool kids table. “It’s Always Sunny” and “Archer” tend to get most of the Internet attention when it comes to F/X shows, but it’s “The League” that — in its third season, at least — is the most consistently funny. It’s like an ensemble version of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” that just happens to revolve around a fantasy football league, though the premise is tertiary to the actual shenanigans. Also, never take fantasy football advice from anyone on the show. They’re is some kind of pansy 8-person league where everybody’s team is stacked with studs, and it’s a snake draft. Snake drafts are for amateurs.

Anyway, it’s an awesome show, which has featured guests appearances this season alone from Jeff…

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So THIS is a “Transparent Overdrive!” One of the first Paul Cochrane Tim Overdrive/Boost Pedals


Was looking for a good discussion of “transparent overdrive,” but this is that and a lot more.

Originally posted on The Generation Of Music:

So recently there’s been a lot of focus on “Transparent Overdrives.”  It seems to be something that lies in the realm of boutique guitar pedals (although certain companies have made inroads into this idea, by hook or by crook).  The basic idea is that it adds volume/gain/drive to your pedal, but only as if you reached over to your amp and cranked it up accordingly.  So, if you’re not in the situation where you’re close to your amp’s controls, or heck your amp just doesn’t get higher volume/gain/drive on its own…you turn to one of these pedals.  It’s not the kind of overdrive that imparts its own “thing” to the game like a tube screamer would (and definitely not  like a distortion pedal would, think the ProCo RAT here).  It’s kinda like hitting a “More” button.

So anyhow, the tag of “Transparent Overdrive” got put on the Tim pedal that…

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VHT Special 6 – modded


Hmmm … An amp project might be cool?!

Originally posted on Put on a coat:

At the end of last summer I splashed out and treated myself on a new amp, my very first ‘new’ amp!

I was on the look out for a small tube amp that would suit my needs – i.e. plodding away in the front room, and not for gigging. The VHT Special 6 kept popping up with very favourable reviews, so I bit the bullet and went for it. I opted for the head and cab version.

This is a great little amp, straight out of the box, hand-wired, with a  12AX7 preamp tube and a 6V6 output tube. There is a boost feature, which is footswitchable, although the huge jump in volume isn’t the most practical. It can get pretty loud when pushed, in a home-practice context. There is also a half power option for late night playing.

Simple controls – one tone pot and volume pot. Hi and…

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Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” comes under plagiarism charges


Seriously — if this isn’t a case of actual musical plagiarism, it’s the craziest coincidence I’ve ever heard. Add the fact that the bands were on the same label, and it can’t be accidental.

Originally posted on Consequence of Sound:

The authenticity of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most iconic songs has come under question. Recently, Australian music website Max TV uncovered the striking similarities between Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Unpublished Critics”, a song by Australian rock band Australian Crawl.

“Unpublished Critics”, which was released six years prior to “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, features “the same chugging chord progression, a similarly-sweeping lead break, the verse melody, and the elongated one-syllable vocal in the chorus,” claims Max TV.

“Unpublished Critics” is by no means an unknown song. In Australia, the album which it appeared on, Sirocco, peaked at No. 1 on the charts. Australian Crawl broke up in 1986, a year before the release of GNR’s Appetite For Destruction, which featured “Sweet Child O’ Mine”. Interestingly enough, both Sirocco and Appetite For Destruction was released in the US by Geffen Records.

James Reyne, a member of Australian…

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The Univox EC-80 Project, Pt. 1

Since the People of the Interwebz have been so kind to offer information, insight, and detailed tutorials that I’ve found incredibly helpful in pursuing my various DIY projects, I thought I’d contribute by detailing my fix-it process with the Univox EC-80 and including links to many of the resources that I’ve found helpful. I hope all of the folks whose pages, words and images I link to will consider this blog post to be thanks and acknowledgment for all of the help they’ve given me!

So, back in early April I spotted an auction on eBay that caught my eye: a “not working, for parts or repair” Univox tape echo. I have  a saved search on eBay for broken guitar effects, and the Univox was listed under that; although it’s not exclusively a guitar effect, it is best known as part of the early Van Halen guitar sound, most specifically the ‘dive bomb’ effects at the end of Eddie Van Halen’s famous “Eruption” solo track on their first album. It’s no one-trick-pony, though. Browsing through YouTube I found some good demos of working EC-80s, and I was definitely hooked. I created a still-growing playlist here, if you’re interested:

I made what I thought was a low but possibly winning bid — about half of the supposed current value of the unit — and, what do you know, a few days later the old black box is on my kitchen table! My 3 year old assisted me in an initial “will it turn on?” test, the first step in the fix-it process: the power indicator light came on and, more importantly, the tape motor started whirring gently. Very good news.

univox tape echo

Plugging things into things

I’d already hit the interwebz via google and various guitar and gear forums for a basic primer on this unit’s issues and quirks. The biggest one seemed to be the scarcity of the Apollon HD-5000 tape cartridges that were the only exact match for the EC-80. My unit arrived without a tape (which I knew would be the case) but lucky for me gear DIYers had been working to find ways around tape issues for awhile. There were companies that made repros of the old Apollons,  would repair and/or put new tape in old or broken cartridges. Tape nuts had also posted instructions on repairing the Apollons DIY, and discovered that old PlayTapes would fit the EC-80 with some modification to the tapes or to the unit itself.

Hedging my bets, I nabbed a broken Apollon cartridge ($20) and two working PlayTapes ($10 each) off ebay; about a week later, tapes were in hand, and I was ready to see if this box was going to make any noise!

To be continued …

Tim Lee 3 – good rockers and hard times

timlee3Tim & Susan Lee, 2 of the Tim Lee 3, found out just the other day that their long-time day-gig in the print media world was suddenly over. Tim’s got a long and awesomely checkered past in southern alternative rock; his Mississippi band, the Windbreakers, were recently featured in the Mississippi issue/CD of the Oxford American; he has musical friendships and associations with folks all over the map, including Mitch Easter’s Let’s Active.

So, if you haven’t before, check out some of their music and pick up a CD, vinyl LP or download card from their website. Proceeds go to an excellent cause: feeding and housing musicians!

Go here to listen and buy:


And watch this, too …


Wednesday Dose of Soul: “Truck Turner” – Isaac Hayes

SolidGoldFX Funkzilla Review

The auto-wah, touch-wah/envelope filter is a bit of a niche effect. Die-hard rockers and funkmeisters always seem to go for the clunky, full-size Vox or Dunlop wahs, and there are no shortage of those and their imitators to go around. I could never get the hang of constantly working a pedal with my foot while having to focus on what my hands were (supposed to be) doing. I canguyatone wr 2’t pat my head and rub my stomach at the same time, either. For the hopelessly uncoordinated who still want to get funky, a wah/filter effects pedal is a must-have. Since trading away my first Cry Baby after many thwarted attempts at playing “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” I’ve owned several of them. My first was a little purple Guyatone WR2 “Wah Rocker” that I bought used out of the window of a music store in Nashville for around $90, I think, in 2004. It was a very simple auto wah, with knobs for Threshold and Decay, and a bypass switch. Even an idiot like me could use it! Sadly, it disappeared somewhere along the long, winding and somewhat inebriatedly navigated road of my semi-professional music career. At this very moment it’s probably being used as a door stop in the ladies’ bathroom at a truck stop somewhere between Richmond and Bristol, VA. Enjoy your second life, my tiny purple friend!

My next companion in the funk wars was the dutifully named Modtone Funk Filter. With three knobs, which included settings for low pass, mid pass, and high pass filters, it was more tweakable, if less actually ‘funky’ than the Guyatone. Still, it had a thick tone, especially in the ‘mp’ setting, that fattened up single string riffs and give an interesting punch to my brief solo breaks. Unlike the Guyatone, which was an auto-wah (the sweep of the filter — what’s controlled by the pedal on a “big” wah pedal — is automatic, and controlled by a speed, or in the case of the WR2, a “Decay” knob), the MFF is a touch-wah or classic envelope filter: it responds to the signal going in, and an “attack” control gauges how sensitive the filters affect is to your playing dynamics.

Speaking of breaks, the Modtone is now broken. The 9V input assembly cracked (that’s weird, I know!) but that was a simple enough, straight-forward fix: $1 for a new power jack and some soldering time. However, I am not the world’s most deft electrical tinkerer; when attaching the new 9V assemble (which worked!), I also seemed to have dripped some solder or got something too hot — in any case, now it powers up, but doesn’t work. It will probably take awhile before I can trace down all the components that will need to be replaced in order to fix what I unfixed when I was fixing. No worries, though, as it joins yet another broken Modtone pedal in my “I’ll get around to it” box which I will probably cannibalize for parts.

Which leads me, finally, to the SolidGoldFX Funkzilla, which I borrowed when I recently re-upped my subscription Pedal Genie. For those of you unfamiliar with the service, it’s like Netflix for guitar pedals. You pay a monthly subscription fee, create a “wish list,” and they send you a pedal from that list. Keep it as long as you like; when you are ready to return it, put your pedal back in the provided box, and email the kind folks at Pedal Genie to request a mailing label. They will shoot it to you via email; tape it onto the padded flat rate envelope they sent along inside your pedal order, seal the boxed-up pedal into the envelope, and drop it in the mail. As soon as they receive it at the Pedal Genie office, they will send you another pedal on your list. It’s cool, and convenient, and a great way to try out unusual and/or boutique pedals before actually dropping $200-300 on one. I’ve gotten a Caroline Kilobyte, a Strymon Lex, an EHX B9 Organ Machine, a Tech21 Fuzz/Boost, and, now, the SolidGoldFx Funkzilla. Of all these, the Funkzilla has been my favorite, and it’s the only one I’ve been so enamored with that I’ve begun stalking it on Reverb and eBay. They are still running in the low $200’s, even for a used one!funkzilla pedal

The Funkzilla is more than just an auto-wah or filter effect; the ease of use, tweakability, and overall design make it almost an instrument itself. Billed as the “ultimate filter pedal,” the device comes in a sparkly purple rectangular enclosure; with its white knobs and white “Electric Company” style lettering, I was immediately struck by how ‘funky’ this pedal looked. While the rows of knobs and switches made my brain hurt a little, I decided to plug and play before searching online for a manual. It didn’t take long at all to figure out how the controls worked and to get busy using the various settings for musical inspiration.

The Funkzilla is basically a two-function monster. There’s Tap mode, which utilizes the Speed, Mode, and Depth knobs, as well as switches to select among three wave-forms, repeat-multipliers (1, 2, or 4), and >dir< which controls the “direction” of the filter’s sweep in both modes. I’d liken the Funkzilla’s Tap to an extremely tweakable Tremolo; the Mode knob gives you several different rhythmic “chopping” patterns to select from, and their character and speed are easily shaped by the aforementioned knobs, the ‘tap’ button, the wave-form selector or the multiplier switch. I could’ve spent hours playing around with just half of the pedal’s functions, but what I was looking for was the funk, so my quest continued.

Envelope mode is where you find the familiar filter effects lazy-footed guitarists are in search of — and this pedal certainly delivers. The Depth, Frequency and Attack knobs are active in this mode, and allow you to contour the filter to mimic a wide range of sound shapes, from a spanky quack to very musical, talkbox-sounding vowel sounds. And the >dir< feature really comes alive in this Envelope mode. I’d never imagined that reversing the filter sweep would do much more than muddy the initial input signal, but the effect was something nearly akin to a Slow Gear volume swell. For something I would’ve considered superfluous before trying this pedal out, the >dir< feature is one of the things that really sets this pedal apart from the pack.

My gigging experience with the Funkzilla was a very positive one. I put it after my EHX Soul Food overdrive, basically in the middle of my pedal chain. (BTW I know most sources say to put a Wah before an overdrive, fuzz or boost, but I actually prefer the ‘darker’ results of distortion going through the filter, instead of the other way around.)  I stuck exclusively with Envelope mode, as I felt that I’d need more time to really get a handle on Tap mode before I could use it effectively.  Even using only half the pedal, I found the results exciting and inspirational, both for rhythm and some solo passages. I had to do very little tweaking during the show, and was pleased to see that the purple sparkle of the pedal, contrasting with the white knobs and white labeling, made onstage, low-light knob twiddling easier. So, the funky color is both a stylish choice and a practical one. I don’t currently have an expression pedal that I could use to test the effect’s functionality with the added interface, but I imagine it would add even greater flexibility and increase the possibilities for live exploration and invention.

I don’t have a rating system for gear reviews — should I have one? — but if I did, I’d give the SolidGoldFX Funkzilla two thumbs up, four guitar picks, five gold stars, etc. My only knock would be the cost, but my experience with guitar effects is that you often get what you pay for, and the Funkzilla, even at $250 new (and still $200-225 used), packs a lot of value into that funky purple box!


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