Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

21
Dec
11

Why Not A Nice Ratatouille?

This was all inspired by this product:

And this question:

WHY???????

A lifetime ago, I taught fitness classes at the YMCA. During my tenure there, I cannot count the number of people who used to ask me for weight loss advice and/or personal training secrets. My answer was always the same, “Eat less and exercise more. If you burn more calories than you take in, you’ll lose weight. If you don’t, you won’t.” Out of the innumerable askers, a very numerable minority took me up on it: one. Only one person out of the throng responded to the harsh reality that 1500 calories = 1 pound, no matter how you slice it or dress it up. Everyone else went for a gimmick (“Ooh, if I do a boot camp, I can eat whatever I want!” “If I only eat protein, I can eat as much as I want!” “If I starve myself for 10 days, then I can eat whatever I want for 5!”).

It’s a human trait to try to find the path of least resistance. It seems to be an American trait, however, to so stubbornly pursue shortcuts. We seem to have been so pampered, we’re on the verge of become imbecilic brats who can no longer understand what it is to take medicine that doesn’t taste exactly like an Orange Julius.

The dressing up of the problem, then, has become big business. Want to get into a good school? It can’t be that the answer is to work hard, be as well-rounded as possible, and let the chips fall where they may; instead, you must game the system in the specific way these handy dandy books’ll tell you. Want to lose weight? Drink this magical elixir (juice) with these magical pills (speed) and watch your appetite disappear (while your blood pressure skyrockets)! Too much trouble to dress yourself? Never fear! Now you don’t have to even go through the trouble of putting on a velour track suit; now there are Pajama Jeans!

I’m not going on another anti-consumerist rampage here. My problem is actually the lack of understanding we as a country show that sometimes medicine is medicine. And that’s not always that bad. There are ways to make it palatable without losing what it is in the first place.

To wit: a French friend of mine was talking to me about the huge business that is recipes for children’s food here. She said she’d been over to a friend’s house and said (very well-meaning) friend was showing her a trick to get her kid to eat carrots: just roast them with honey on top. My friend was perplexed and asked the best question ever: “Why not a nice ratatouille?”

What an excellent question, and an excellent response to all this craziness. Instead of going overboard on gimmicks and tricks and trying so hard to never ever have to realize that something might be unpleasant, why not use a simple method to make it palatable? Want to look better when you roll out of bed? Get nicer pajamas. Better yet, stop caring so much whether or not anyone sees you in pajamas. Want to get better grades? Go to class, take notes, then do the assignments. Want to lose weight? Keep going to the gym, then skip a meal once in a while (or cut back on the ones you already eat). Why not a nice ratatouille indeed?

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20
Dec
11

A Nation of Rosalind Franklins, Rather Than Ben

Another quick note on our educated populace. I recently watched someone try to learn physics on his own. He was assiduous about the learning, and–being availed any number of written, online, and hands-on resources–one would think he quickly became an expert. And yet, after 4 years of trying, he still has a serious misunderstanding of the fundamentals of the science. Is it because he’s unteachable? No. Is it because physics is too difficult to comprehend, even at its basest level? No. Why, then, could he fail to learn it after trying so hard?

What I have noticed in my (admittedly paltry)Look, Ma, lots of hands! year-ish of teaching here in the States is that more and more people have a serious difficulty synthesizing information. While the problem my students have in communicating a hypothesis effectively is understandable (as is their lack of being able to formulate good game plans in general), what I find interesting is their seeming lack of ability to analyze their own results. For example, say a student indirectly measures the height of a table by seeing how long a pencil takes to fall off of it. If one measurement says the table is 4 feet tall, and another says it’s 8, they have a very difficult time understanding what that data means. In truth, they tend to just not think about it. They report it, then move on.

This is a problem I’ve seen reflected in myriad instances in the country. Immediate utility, rather than broad applicability, is what has increasingly become of the focus of a populace ever more terrified and bewildered by the idea of thinking critically about subjects. It seems that the emphasis in everyday problem-solving has become immediate gratification. Maybe it’s the result of the Sesame Street generation growing up. Maybe the further infantilization of the Facebook crowd is adding to it. I tend to think, however, that the problem is one that has historically plagued anyone who is obsessed with linear thought.

Linear thought processes are great. They can help keep ideas organized, can keep ideas focused, and can keep blogs on-track. They are not, however, so great at seeing the forest for the forest. Take the titular case of Rosalind Franklin, for example. While her photograph of DNA’s structure may have been the first, her inability to see it for what it was led to her getting scooped by James Watson on her own data.

Our country has always purported to encourage the Ben Franklins amongst us to greatness. Those who can understand that the electricity coming out of the bulb might be the same as the luminescence visible during a thunderstorm are supposed to always find a home here. More and more, though, this kind of thinking is being seen as suspect and, worse yet, European.At least it's still sunny in December, suckers!

Nowhere is the lack of understanding the causation of the big picture from the little picture more evident (and evidently disastrous) than in California.

California boasts a “direct democracy.” In other words, voters decide on policy. It sounds great, but it’s actually a horrible idea given the lack of ability of the statewide electorate to understand and extrapolate from data. Want better parks? Sure. Better schools? Absolutely. More cops and firemen on the streets? You bet! Want to pay more taxes? No way! And that, in a nutshell, is how a state with a huge economy can go bankrupt.

The basic understanding of how the little picture relates to the big picture is part of what makes a science like physics fun to teach. Look at the pencil fall off the table. That’s also what holds our universe together (and on, and on). It’s also what makes nations work. Looking at the data of our society right now, we can derive the following: we are not recovering from an almost-depression as quickly as we should; we are quickly becoming a nation of the chronically un-and-under-employed; we are coexisting with other first-world markets that are equally hurting; we are trying to mitigate terrorist threats from multiple countries of origin; and we are paying historically little in taxes. After reading this list of problems the next president will need to address, one can easily derive that the next president must be:
1. Highly proactive and persuasive to a bipartisan group
2. A master diplomat
3. Tough-minded and steady
Nate Silver’s work has shown as much. Specifically, it said that, if the economy continues to recover slowly, the GOP candidate is a shoe-in against Obama. Just so long as he’s neither an extremist nor has taken crazily extreme positions.

Here are the GOP candidates:

Nuff said.

20
Dec
11

Commodification to Any Degree

So it’s been a loooong time since I added something. The quick synopses of events leading to now: moved back to the States (more on that later), am teaching in a private school, and had another kid. Even though I’m busier than I’ve ever been, I’m making time now to update. Why? This:

James Franco got a D in his acting class, then promptly (allegedly) bitched about it until NYU canned the offending professor.

As I mentioned, I’m currently teaching at a private institution, so this hits very close to home. After all, I’m currently teaching a kid who, upon having plagiarized every single assignment he’s handed in for the semester, tried to get me canned for only having inflated his grade to a B+. To my school’s credit, they did read me the riot act, but refused to fire me. Still, these two instances point to a problem in the educational system in general. Namely, if private schools are our kids best option, what does that say about the next generation?

We all know public schools need work. We all know that they’re mismanaged, inefficient, and sometimes staffed by people less-than-qualified to be there. Fine. Private schools, then, seem like a better option for a lot of families worried about their children’s future. Yes, they’re usually staffed by impressive people (or, at least, people with more alphabet soup after their names). Yes, they offer highly specialized classes. Yes, their teacher-to-student ratio is largely one more conducive to higher standards of learning.

However.

Like, I'm totally an expert in Keyensian theory!Private schools also experience something that public schools don’t: accountability to their
stockholders. And, in this shitty economy, that can be a driving force in even the best-intentioned educational institution. Amazingly enough, this increased accountability on the part of the administration of any private school is then leading to a marked decrease in accountability for the students there. The message eventually becomes clear: complain loudly and violently enough, and any student can receive any degree, so long as their tuition check clears.

This is not to say that privatization always leads to inferior products (FedEx always being a prime example), but I am saying that it tends to breed a lack of accountability endemic to private institutions. Yes, the heads of any company will always be held accountable. As will the employees of the private company. The ones who won’t are the stockholders.

In a publicly-held institution, the ideal situation is that everyone is accountable to each other. If the local water company fails, they will be held accountable by the tax-paying population. And, that tax-paying population will also be accountable for their own decision (i.e. they will live with disease-infested water, or without enough). That is precisely why certain companies are made public: their success serves the public interest in such an inextricable way that the public will have no choice but to support the genuine success of said institution, regardless of price.

This is also still the best argument for public schooling. A nation can only be as strong as its best and brightest, after all. Likewise, a nation can only benefit from seeing an increase in the numbers (and abilities) of its population. It isn’t as though we haven’t experienced this first-hand lately. We’re all currently enmeshed in the consequences of living under the leadership of someone who bought his education, someone who was never held accountable, someone who still has no real grasp of what the repercussions are of his actions. And yet the populace, still reeling from the effects of the governance of said incurious boob, has seen fit to glorify such a motley crew of inglorious bastards as has ever been witnessed by an electorate. More worrisome yet is that said inglorious bastards aren’t polling at 5%. They are being supported by a population too poorly educated to remember what happened the last time they chose someone poorly educated or trained.

So it goes. And so it will continue to go so long as we make public education a talking point before election, yet the visible results of an education anathema to an electorate too insecure about their own bad education to be outraged by it. We also need to remember that what made this country great once were revolutionary ideas that were coupled with courage behind said convictions; it was not, as some might have you think, made great by mindless tough guys who came over here to flex only their southernmost muscle. And what makes this country a shameful joke on the world economy is that we have let the uneducated feel vindicated rather than angry, empowered by their lack of knowledge rather than entitled to it.

21
Oct
09

Machismo: Lost In Translation

Given its history and reputation as a fiery, imperial, and “Inquisitive” culture, I’ve been struck recently by Spain’s seeming disavowal of a word their language coined: Machismo. While used as a euphemism in many parts of the States for men who yearn to be toe-kickin’ John Wayne-a-bees, Spain translates it literally as “chauvinism,” and treats it as such.

I was first struck by this notion at the Gay Pride Parade I went to here in Madrid, at which there were many signs reading, “Homophobia = Machismo.” The idea seemed to be that machismo is something so looked down upon as antiquated, cruel, and ill-informed (to say the least) that it is mostly now used as a warning, as something so awful and ignorant that you would not want any association with it. The further fact that those signs constituted the first time I had seen/heard/read the word “machismo” in 2 and a half years living here also struck me as odd. After all, the image of the “Macho Man”–as literal Marlboro-man-type, or as ironically flamboyant Village Person–seems to me to be omnipresent across the pond. On the contrary, after being on the lookout, the only other context in which I’ve seen the word used is equating macho men to chronically abusive spouses.

But it doesn’t just end there. A couple of weeks ago, I saw a man at the store wearing a translated version of the biker t-shirt that reads “If You Can Read This…The BITCH Fell Off.” And, while the shirt was definitely recognizable in its design and basic verbiage, the actual message on the back (translated directly back from Spanish) is “If You Can Read This…My FIANCEE/GIRLFRIEND Has Fallen From The Motorcycle.” Comically extraneous prepositional phrases aside, the shirt’s translation to Spanish meant that it necessarily had to lose all of its anger and nonchalance about a violent act occurring to someone about whom the wearer is supposed to care. I can just imagine the first Spaniard reading the American version of the shirt: “Oh ho HO, that poor guy! He’s going to be so worried when he finds out she’s not there! What a useful shirt to let us know to alert him!”

I was just reminded of this whole thing while looking for a movie to watch. I clicked on the “Men Who Hate Women” link, only to find out it’s the movie based on Stieg Larsson’s ubiquitous novel of the same name. At least, its English name is Men Who Hate Women. Its Spanish title (again, translated back) is The Men Who Did Not Love Women. The difference is not only that hate is never mentioned, but that the verb used for the “not love” part of the title is “amar,” the deeper form of the traditional verb “querer,” which also means “to love.” The implication is that the men described in the book did not romantically, truly, deeply love women, as opposed to the English title, which implies that the men in the book harbor darkly violent distaste for women.

And so it occurs to me that there might be something to what I always called, in my younger days, “politically correct horsewallop.” What I see here is something I also remember thinking in the South: Language is power. Specifically, the type of language viewed as community-approved or acceptable sets the tone for the society, and the implications can indeed be palpable. Pulling back on said language, reserving it only for extreme cases, or just outright banning it, then, might not be such a bad thing.


To cite an example from my time below the Mason-Dixon, one day I was driving with one of my neighbors (a female microbiologist) and her niece, returning her niece back to Lafayette (the biggest little city in Cajun Country, for those not in the know). We both started teasing the 16-year-old girl about having a secret crush on one of her school’s football players, a boy who happened to be black. She slumped in her seat and grumbled, “Please. I ain’t gonna have no niglets running ’round my house.” My neighbor saw me blanch and catch my breath, and virtually ran her truck off the road so she could grab her niece and say to her what all Southerners sometimes need said to them:

“If you ever want to get out of a shithole town and be around smart, good people, you can’t talk like that. Any educated people you’re going to meet won’t like it, and they won’t like you.”

That is to say, while your average Connecticut housewife may indeed clutch her purse more closely when she sees any young minority in baggy pants walking by her, betraying some unspoken bigotry in her soul, she won’t admit that she does so; the mere fact that she knows that society frowns on it makes her disapprove of her own thoughts. It is less a case of using sunshine as a disinfectant, and more a case of constructing a polite society. Like not starting food fights in fancy restaurants (even though it’s secretly kind of fun), we don’t do it because we’re not fucking animals.

Why the sudden harsh tone? Taking the argument about machismo, for example, and its lack of perceived hilarity in Spain, let’s look at some statistics. The first 100 days in 2007, 15 women died in Spain as a result of domestic violence. The public outcry was enormous, even though the number dropped (by 6) from the previous year. Protest rallies were organized and held, and the anti-machismo posters abounded. For comparison’s sake, citing a 2005 study, at least 3 women die every day in the United States at the hand of a current or ex-partner. So, in that same period of time in 2007, barring some sudden precipitous drop in cases, 300 women died in the United States. To be fair, let’s adjust the number to show the disparity in population (Spain’s population is roughly 13% that of the United States), and the number come out to 40, over double Spain’s “unacceptable” number.

Maybe it’s all just smoke and mirrors, or maybe it’s just because Spanish men are more preoccupied with Real Madrid vs. Real Betis to save up any violent passions for their spouses, but it seems to me to be worth noting that Machismo may need to stop being funny. Cause maybe it’s already not.

24
Sep
09

New Hope For An AIDS Vaccine

This is not going to be funny. This is just…well, in the words of one of the scientists, “Wow.”

A U.S.-funded study involving more than 16,000 volunteers in Thailand found that a combination of ALVAC, made by Paris- based Sanofi-Aventis SA, and AIDSVAX, from VaxGen Inc., of South San Francisco, cut infections by 31.2 percent in the people who received it compared with those on a placebo, scientists said today in Bangkok. Neither vaccine had stopped the virus that causes AIDS when tested separately in previous studies.

In other words, the research into an AIDS vaccine has broken through, and is now showing promise. A lot of promise. Wow.

I may be showing my age a bit by breathing such a huge sigh of relief here. For those who are too young to remember the terror this disease inflicted on the populous, suffice it to say that it was one of the scarier disease threats I’ve ever witnessed. Not just because of its spread, nor its seeming finality, but because of the ugliness it would bring out in social discourse. The wholly erroneous, disgusting, and dangerous notion was that this disease was confined to perverts, who were doomed anyway. The thing that was especially terrifying and repulsive to me was how widespread the notion seemed, and how the idea of catching a disease suddenly seemed like a social stigma unlike any other. In no other fatal medical situation I have witnessed were so many victims blamed, dismissed, brutalized, and discarded.

I hope the possible light at the end of the tunnel in the search for a vaccine can be metaphorical here. Because the way the victims of AIDS are/were treated is not funny, and neither is the way the homosexual community is treated in the United States. Just as the experiment can now move on, after 2 years of stalling, maybe we can also push forward and recognize that civility, tolerance, and empathy are what unites us.

In short: AIDS is not, and never was, a gay issue, but rather a health issue. When it was recognized as such, and when we started taking seriously the steps that could be taken to prevent such an atrocity from happening to anyone, we moved forward, in a direction that is both productive and awesome. Likewise, being granted the right to decide how to live and love is not a gay issue; it’s a Civil Rights issue. Hopefully, when it begins to dawn on us that this is true, we can once again move forward, out of darkness, and into a place that can make us proud.

I hope the possible light at the end of the tunnel in the search for a vaccine can be metaphorical here. Because the way the victims of AIDS are/were treated is not funny, and neither is the way the homosexual community is treated in the United States. Just as the experiment can now move on, after 2 years of stalling, maybe we can also push forward and recognize that civility, tolerance, and empathy are what unites us.

17
Jul
09

On Heckler, Hecklers, and Critics

I was watching Jamie Kennedy’s movie Heckler last night, something I still think is a brilliant response to the savage critiques he received after Malibu’s Most Wanted and Son of the Mask. I think it’s a great bit of revenge to, in the face of cruel and inhuman criticism, show a comedian (and interview many others) ingesting said criticism, wincing at personal slights, and looking hurt at the extent of the savagery.

And, yes, I absolutely agree that, if you don’t like a movie or comedy show, you should just leave. Change the channel. I let Carlos Mencia be Carlos Mencia, and I just go have a cocktail at the bar. Done.

It was when the documentary got into savaging critics and bloggers that I (predictably) began to lose some of my sympathy for the characters. I concede that I also yearn for the days of serious film/dramatic criticism (where are today’s Dorothy Parkers, who are knowledgeable and empathetic enough to the performers and writers to know just how to slice them up, without actually breaking them down?). Gene Shalit, Leonard Maltin, the staff of the NY Times these days…feh. And, yes, I think they should all be replaced by people who actually make movies for a living, much as the book reviews that are always the most spot-on and interesting are essayed by fellow writers.

And yet…well, the thing is…I couldn’t help but think of that line from Godfather II: “This is the business [you’ve] chosen.” It’s not like you made this movie, then released it, only to find that the entire world of film criticism had changed from an erudite circle of polite former screenwriters, into a gaggle of snarling beasts. And, in order to put up with said snarling beasts, you got paid. Well. Better than said snarling beasts, and sure as shit better than most of the country.

And, as far as mean “fans” go, while I think it’s rude that people go up to celebrities and tell them their movies suck when the poor people are just trying to enjoy a meal, I also think it’s enormously arrogant to think that people will never have unfavorable opinions about your work, and will instead just sit in slack-jawed wonderment at the talking pictures proferred for their enjoyment. Unfortunately, it’s a fact that the most likely response you will get will be the most negative, with the most positive following behind. It’s just how our psyches work; many studies have confirmed that we humans like to bitch about things we hate more than admire things we love.

As for the blogosphere: Yes, the internet is home to the meannest of the mean, in both senses of the word. However, it is written by the general public, and these are all people who, unlike “real critics,” paid to see your movie. If you don’t want to listen to their opinions, fine: Don’t log on and Google yourself. But don’t bitch because they have opinions that are contrary to your own, and say so.

As far as the language of online reviews goes, it has indeed gotten more and more violent and crude, especially when writing reviews of things and/or celebrities. Why, you wonder, the animosity? The answer is: It has nothing to do with animosity, and everything to do with anonymity. The internet is huge, and the blogosphere is chock-a-block with people who like to write their opinions. In order to differentiate yourself, you have to make something in your headline or tags stand out. For whatever reason, I’ve noticed that any headline of mine that includes cursing and/or references to various sorts of perversions gets TONS of hits; those that are more thoughtful get almost none.

I don’t blame readers for this. There are myriad ways to get news and information these days, and civil discourses can get lost in the shuffle. Take the awesome postings at synthesis: They are well-thought-out, highly intellectual, and, above all, well-written. That blog, along with other similar ones, consistently gets rated among the top of the internet. And yet, I will bet all my savings that Gawker beats them in page hits and ad sales. So, there’s that: Blame human nature and its love of watching brutality, but don’t blame the people trying to be heard.

And, while I’m on the subject, there is absolutely no difference between a blogger cruelly mocking a movie, and said movie star saying that the blogger is some basement-dwelling fatass who’s never held a job or gotten laid. Except the amount of people who get to see/hear the movie star say that, versus the small number of people who read the snarky blog. That balances out the comparative anonymity (and security) bloggers feel, yes? And when they lose said anonymity (like Andrew Sullivan, or others), they get well compensated for it. Just like other public figures. So they can buy bigger pillows to cushion the blows of public criticism.

So, in conclusion, here’s my advice to Jamie Kennedy:

1. Just as you say to hecklers in comedy clubs: If you don’t like what you read on the Internet about yourself, don’t look.
2. Buck up, buttercup. Those meanies out there don’t really hate you; they just love colorful language and page views.
3. Go take a look around your nice house, cuddle up to your pretty girlfriend, and remind yourself that you’re doing alright, regardless.

Thus endeth the lesson. Dick jokes soon!

03
Jun
09

“The Other” Side Of The Coin

I came to the conclusion last year that Spanish culture only makes sense in the summer. The idea of championing room-temperature egg dishes (tortilla), massive amounts of salty ham, cold soup that can be easily chugged (gazpacho), mid-day naps, late dinners, hand-held fans…they can all be explained away by the oppressive heat that beats down on the majority of Spain. The slow pace of the culture in general (a “maƱana” mentality, if you will) can also be explained away by the need to laze a bit in the 100+ degree months of July and August.

But then I realized that my judgment was flawed, in that a good bit of proud Spanish heritage is based on the cooler months as well (heavy stews, paella, and good red wines, to name a few). So why did I just assume the culture was defined by the hot months? Because my view, and, I’ll venture to say many Americans’ view, is shaped by when I’d visited here before moving. And I, again like many Americans, visited in the summer months.

This started me thinking about the way cultures think about one another, and how heavily influenced that thinking is by an inherent human desire to look for “the other.” It seems to run rampant in everyone I know. The entire reason, it seems, to travel for so many has virtually always been in order to experience something different, strange, truly foreign. Be it through the spice trade, the search for new worlds, or a quick jaunt to Paris for Spring Break, the human experience seems to demand the discovery of differences between people in different places, as though we seek subconsciously to authenticate the seemingly arbitrary borders dividing the cultures. In other words, rather than search for commonalities between cultures, it seems we seek to divide ourselves.

God help me, I have to cut this short and get back to the dick jokes before I break out into Imagine.