Sunday, July 30, 2006

Stuck in a Book Rut

I display a photo of the book I am currently reading for all of my blog readers to see. Scroll down a bit and you will learn that right now, that book is Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Ligthness of Being. I had heard of the book for awhile now, mainly because it is a fairly frequent favorite on Facebook profiles, but for some reason, I was under the impression that it was a fairly generic Oprah book club title until I saw it listed in the New York Times Book Review's Books of the Century: A Hundred Years of Authors, Ideas, and Literature. Maybe it was the title's explicit stating of its theme that made me look down upon it, not that I cannot appreciate overt grandiosity in literature.

I am somewhat underwhelmed by the book, which is a blend of storytelling and the narrator (presumably Kundera's) own sporadic interjections. Much of the book describes the life of an accomplished doctor who is also a consummate lover. The consummate lover aspect takes over a bit too much of the plot. That the Soviets have just occupied Czechoslovakia is somewhat tangential until towards the end of the book (it is set in Prague and a bit in Switzerland around 1968) which is kind of surprising.

So this brings me to the source of my rut: Why is it that I cannot get into even some of the most acclaimed books? Held above all other books in my mind is, probably unsurprisingly, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. I mark myself as one of the most unoriginal people on the planet when I say it is the perfect book. What about it do I think is perfect? Well, I think Fitzgerald does a uniquely good job developing his narrator, Nick Carraway. In books where a third person omniscient voice narrates, there is an implied sense that an impartial force can give an objective account of the lives of the characters. That Gatsby's narrator subtly undermines himself at points, revealing that he too is flawed and not always trustworthy indicates a wise grasp of people and their tendencies on the part of the author. At the end, Carraway's account of Jay Gatsby comes off as a little too romantic--something I've seen the book criticized for. However, after reading it again a couple of summers ago, I truly did not know whether Fitzgerald thinks Gatsby a tragic figure or a pawn of a mythical American Dream, and we are mistaken if we equate Fitzgerald's point-of-view with Carraway's (though I'm sure Carraway is an outgrowth of F. Scott in many respects).

This leads me to another point of the novel's perfection, which is that it is strongly thematic without being heavy-handed. (Okay, maybe Fitzgerald overdoes the time motif a bit, but I still like it). Put simply, to illustrate themes about the large, conceptual themes like the American Dream, the passing of time, and the effect of place on people, Fitzgerald shows rather than tells. He shows the carelessness of the entitled wealthy class and their reckless automobile crashes and aloof insularity, and he shows the new money consumption of Gatsby that buys shirts of every hue and builds a sprawling mansion to get the girl.

So this is a little bit of what any other novel I try to read is up against. If anyone has any book suggestions, let me know. Just keep in mind that I'm not very original.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Endless Framing

In the contest to find an omniscient prophet to turn the the tide of the Democratic party, the rise of scholar and writer George Lakoff, a linguist at UC-Berkeley and a relatively new celebrity in political circles, is almost predictable. Lakoff's book Don't Think of an Elephant, Fram the Debate (2004) launched a second career for the professor, a career based on his assertion that if Democrats want to win elections, they must frame issues in a broader and more theme-based platform. He has the ear of many Democrats in high places, and some of what he says is admittedly useful, such as his assertion that the Bush Administration does not represent incompetence but rather the failure of conservative principles (but doesn't it represent both?).

According to him and others--for this narrative is hardly new--the Republican establishment has done a good job defining their party as the symbolic "strict father" with "the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong." Republicans have made the "strict father" model into a trusted worldview among Americans; Democrats' "nuturant parent" model that assumes people are inherently good is in turn rejected in favor of the strict father approach. As a result, much hand-wringing ensues over how the Democrats are losing the "framing" contest. Too much time is spent analyzing and parroting Lakoff, not enough time is spent working to turn dismal prophecies around.

Lost in all of this is how unquantifiable a lot of what Lakoff asserts really is. Language of course and its effective mastery, including the ability to unite thoughts under a coherent theme, is crucial in communicating ideals and beliefs--and not something George W. Bush particularly excels at--but commencing yet another debate on why Democrats lose rather than working for them to win is in a sense undermining the effort to use language to redefine and renew the party. A communications strategy that is supposed to consist of successful framing techniques becomes overcome by self-defeat. Proof of this is the way in which Lakoff himself has become a star attraction rather than just an anonymous speechwriter.

Sometimes over-analysis results in paralysis, rather than a clear-headed ability to act. In this vein, one of the best and most deceptively simple pieces of advice I have received is to "act as if, and belief will follow." Often times, dwelling on failures rather than successes lead to a rootedness in that failure. Sometimes, one must act as if success was inevitable, and perhaps it will be.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Deciphering the Tune-etic Code

I don't know how or why, but there are certain types of songs I think each of us like that span the genres to some degree but retain certain qualities. It is for this reason that I searched Napster persistently after I first heard a song called "Walk on By" played on a rural Michigan oldies station in the summer of 2000 and for this reason that my brother--who is all too familiar with my unfortunate habit of playing songs I've latched onto repetiviely for a couple of days--knew exactly which song I would like on the newest Flaming Lips CD ("The Sound of Failure," if you're interested). Dionne Warwick and the Flaming Lips do not seem similar, and I have such little knowledge of music that I could not begin to ascertain a connection between them, but in spite of this, I have a sense that there is something that connects them.

This sense is what drives a website called Pandora Internet Radio, which merely asks that you type in a treasured song or singer and goes to work finding songs whose elements are similar. A search of Marvin Gaye yielded me "These Eyes" by the Spinners, which I enjoyed. Pandora calls this process the music genome project but admits that it may not have understood exactly what you like about your original song or singer choice by allowing you to declare your dislike for a song they offer you. Like decoding a human genome, we are limited in understanding how the pieces define the whole, where in the human genome, the pieces are protein and in the music genome, they are things such as meandering melodic phrasing and acoustic sonority. If I hadn't quit piano in the sixth grade, I could probably tell you what that all means.

Still, experimenting with Pandora has allowed me to get a hold on what traits I find appealing in a song. I seem to have a penchant for orchestral arranging, major key tonality and a subtle use of vocal harmony. Alice Cooper I am not.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Any Two Schmucks

So, this post and its possible futility might well negate the seriousness I hoped to impart with the prior entry, but I was just thinking about how in life, people have talking points, and often times, these are talking points that they have unknowingly and unintentionally co-opted from others. After talking to a friend about a wedding, I thought about how the usual reaction among my age group when friends are getting married is a sense that we are getting older, that it's hard to believe friends are getting married, etc. This reaction is viral, so that when one is about 21, s/he is bound to express it. I too have reflexively agreed with this sentiment in the past, but tonight I thought about this milestone in a new light: Any pair of schmucks can get married. There are people who get married for the right reasons and people who get married for the wrong reasons, and considering we are told that half of marriages end in divorce, I wouldn't use weddings among my age group as a barometer of having Figured Life Out. I'm not saying I have it figured out but thinking that a wedding or a mortgage or an investment portfolio is a sign of growing up is as foolish as thinking that adults don't make mistakes. So if I am talking with friends about marriage, I herein vow to advance my talking point that any two schmucks can get married, unless of course I run the risk of sounding like a total kiljoy, in which case I'll just play along.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Wrongful Perceptions of Israel

If you start agreeing with someone too much, be afraid, be very afraid. This is what I reassured myself today as I read popular Daily Kos blogger Markos Moulitsas's pronouncements on the recent Hezbollah attacks on Israel and Israel's reaction. Moulitsas foolishly embraced a Clash of Civilizations mentality in explaining the current and quite brutal impasse between Israel and Lebanon:
It's clear that in the Middle East, no one is sick of the fighting. They have centuries of grudges to resolve, and will continue fighting until they can get over them.

Such a "centuries of grudges" framing, which sets up the conflict as if it is inevitable and as if groups like Hezbollah aren't themselves independent actors is part of what keeps this conflict going. It implies that there is some inherent animosity that must occur between Jews and Muslims (without noting that the Muslim population is internally very diverse, in terms of economic status, ethnicity, etc.).

A perception that is held by some is that Israel is an aggressor because it is a formidable military power. This cause and effect is a bit sloppy: considering Israel is in the center of one of the most volatile regions in the world, and yes, it has the economic resources, and furthermore, is the main target of its neighboring countries, it would follow that Israel would want to build up a sizable military arsenal.

Some believe Israel is the aggressor. I don't believe in wars of aggression, but in my mind, that fully squares with my feelings towards Israel, which is that it has a right and in fact a duty to defend itself against such wars. Those of us who are against wars of aggression must also be for strong defense against such wars.

Israel further gets perceived as an economic behemoth that oppresses the more destitute citizens of the neighboring Palestinian territories. However, people ignore the internal problems of those territories such as that the Palestinians have been led by a corrupt authority in the past in which its leader, the late Yasser Arafat, used foreign aid money on his own personal expenses and discreetly encouraged terrorist acts against Israelis rather than peace. He walked out of sweeping negotiations with Israel, therefore denying his citizens sizable gains and hopes for a life of peace. Israel does have a thriving economy compared to those of its neighboring states--something that is also held against the it, but this is not due to any pillaging of neighboring nations but to a strong democracy which inherently values the contribution of its citizens to its economic life. It would be nice if the House of Saud or the regime in Syria would focus more on reforming their country's problems and less on finding a scapegoat.

This brings me to the final incorrect perception about Israel: those who believe Israel is an oppressor of Muslims ignore the more complex rivalries among the Muslim nations, such as Syria's occupation of Lebanon. These Muslim countries are hardly brothers-in-arms, as Clash of Civilizations folks might believe, and if Israel were to dissolve, more internecine warfare would erupt, this time over the land. It is somewhat oblivious to think as some seem to, that it would all be easier in the Middle East if Israel just didn't exist, if the Balfour Declaration hadn't been written, if the Ottoman Empire hadn't dissolved, if the Israelites hadn't conquered Canaan (we can go back forever on this), but that is simply oblivious of geopolitical tendencies.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

A New Gender Gap in Education

The New York Times features a pretty fascinating article today about a growing achievement gap between male and female students at institutions of higher learning, be they two-year or four year colleges. This isn't a futile Lawrence Summers-style parlor game of who's better at certain subjects but rather an account of statistics, from number of honors students to a university's ratio of males to females that evidences greater committment to learning, better grades, and more productivity in studying among college women than their male counterparts. Why this disparity?
Men were significantly more likely than women to say they spent at least 11 hours a week relaxing or socializing, while women were more likely to say they spent at least that much time preparing for class. More men also said they frequently came to class unprepared.

Using data from U.C.L.A.'s Higher Education Research Institute annual studies, [Associate Professor of education Linda Sax] found that men were more likely than women to skip classes, not complete their homework and not turn it in on time.

One woman from American University who was interviewed called such tendencies "a male entitlement thing," saying that "they think they can sit back and relax and when they graduate, they'll still get a good job. They seem to think that if they have a firm handshake and speak properly, they'll be fine." As my Dad pointed out, in our country today, such an attitude makes one Presidential material.
Furthermore, effort in scholastic achievement is often looked down upon, chided, even in a university setting. As the article points out, men tend to scoff at the amount of effort some female students put forth to achieve good grades (and learn). The practice of bragging about how little time it required for one to do well or at least decently on an exam or paper has probably been witnessed by almost every college student alive and is an outgrowth of the devaluing of effort.

For instance, I remember hearing stories about people who started writing their thesis the weekend before it was due. In such an atmosphere, mentioning that you started the quarter before it was due is actually less impressive. What people who brag about putting forth little effort for decent performance don't realize is that (1) work and especially in academic work truly shines as a result of consistency in effort and longterm planning (2) one is much more likely to absorb a subject through an incremental approach to studying than to cramming, which so often turns into dull memorization exercises.

This article is a useful read, with recognizable behaviors and some interesting analysis. What I hope doesn't happen out of it is anxiety about males being somehow deprived of their essential manliness at college, an almost reflexive reaction among some conservatives over the last 30-years, who view such things as Ritalin as a sign that a masculine instinct is being squelched by the education system. As the article says,
But some scholars say the new emphasis on young men's problems — recent magazine covers and talk shows describing a "boy crisis" — is misguided in a world where men still dominate the math-science axis, earn more money and wield more power than women.

Hard work is something that both genders are capable of, as long as there are incentives behind it. If men come by jobs more easily than women, however, men will under-perform. This is why there should be increasing efforts to equalize women's ability to attain and advance in a professional environment as well as aid to people seeking unpaid internships and better financial aid for students who otherwise have to work longer hours to fund their college education (a predicament of both men and women in an environment of decreased prioritizing by the Republican Congress of education funding).

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Devil Makes People Watch this Movie

People who believe in simplicity and integrity do not make movies like The Devil Wears Prada, with its predictable Princess Diaries–goes–to–Condé Nast template, unearned moral superiority, ubiquitous pop-song-infused montages, and ugly-duckling heroine who is neither ugly nor a duckling. It’s bizarre when all the Runway employees wrinkle their noses at Andrea instead of realizing that, with her long legs and neck and skinny face and big, dark eyes, she’s pure Runway.--New York Magazine review of The Devil Wears Prada

Amen. I saw The Devil Wears Prada this weekend, and though I wasn't expecting anything phenomenal, the film bothered me for its combination of false morality and absolute improbablility. Things that bothered me include (but aren't limited to):

  • the attempt at trying to pass Ann Hathaway off as a frumpy, size 6 (the horror!) bland-looking woman. if she is ugly and fat, what are the rest of us?
  • the fact that the film was unsure of whether to critique the fashion industry or laugh it off. either way, it came off as a muddled portrayal, with the cruelties of the fashion industry (you're fat, you dress terribly) passed off as a joke on the main character. boy, if i could take that joke, i would have skin as thick as iron!
  • the logic that a woman who was editor of the university newspaper at one of the nation's best journalism school's, Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, wouldn't be able to find a job more up her alley. it made a bit of sense that she might apply to the fictional version of Condé-Nast because the publication company also owns the more substantive New Yorker, but most people who are interested in print journalism and have such strong qualifications go on to get jobs that allow them to write.
  • the utter ignorance this film had to money revealed in the jabs at main character Andy's (Hathaway) tastes in clothing--jabs which came not just from the fashion folks but by her friends--as if affordability doesn't come into play for a recent college graduate when buying clothes, even one a little more fashion savvy.
  • the precarious glorification of the values of the fashion industry when Hathaway's character starts wearing couture and becomes a size 4! (i thought she was already a 0?). at the same time, we are to believe that Hathaway is above it all and that this supposedly smart, ethical woman would demean herself by fetching coffee for a fashion diva.
  • and even though it wasn't Roger Ebert's most astute review of a film, his singly astute observation in his critique of The Devil Wears Prada was that Adrian Grenier should have played the hip author that Hathaway perennially runs into rather than play her college boyfriend, as he is more hipster chic.
Let me know what you thought of the movie or if you had better ones to see, such as An Inconvenient Truth, aka The Al Gore Movie. (I think that has become its unintented subtitle).

Why History is a major Major

On graduation day a few weeks ago, some of my fellow history majors and I mused a bit about the way our convocation ceremony was organized, with each department lumped in their own section. Right then I felt a history major's pride swelling up, a pride that is pretty much recognized only by a fellow history major, because the non-major who inquires about our area of study is (amazingly) far from moved to regard us in awe. Instead, upon learning of our major, he will form a quizzical expression, pause for a couple seconds, and then finally reconcile himself to our real intentions: "oh, you must want to teach," we are knowingly told.

Even (and perhaps especially) for those who do want to teach, the history major who loves his studies does so because history accounts for every other area of study that is offered at the university. Physics, for instance is not an immortal field (not that it's not important, useful, and incredibly interesting); rather, its existence can be accounted for by human experience, by the advancing interest that humans had in the last five hundred years in the ability to explain and quantify physical phenomena.

Lining up for convocation, one of my history friends even half-joked that political science isn't a real major, an ironic statement given that history and poli sci people are often lumped together, because both majors study similar events and they both produce graduates who tend to go to law school. However, in certain ways, the two are fundamentally opposed: where the study of poli sci--like economics--suggests that there is a science to human behavior that repeats itself, the study of history acknowledges that this is not the case, that in each period of time, an event that may have seemed similar to past events yielded from different actors, motivations, circumstances, and so forth. We might believe that Iraq is not another Vietnam, though we can understand how it is a failed mission just as Vietnam was. We might believe that George W. Bush is not another Richard Nixon, even though they are both guilty of similar indiscretions.

So that, in sum, is why a history major may think s/he is special: there is no immortal explanation for events--not that there aren't lessons to be learned from the past--but rather just human experiences that have preceded us and will follow us. So, though it may annoy you to read this smug proclamation that our major represents an all-encompassing area of study, if it makes you feel better, the other majors usually get the higher paying jobs. ;-)