Archive for February 19th, 2009

Powerful images from the White House

| February 19, 2009 | 3 Replies
Powerful images from the White House

Sometimes, when I see videos of President Barack Obama, I think of how important it might be for Americans to see photos and videos of highly-accomplished African-American role models. For decades, television has too often portrayed African-Americans as dysfunctional, lazy or violent criminals. The onslaught of these abnormal images has been terrible and relentless. I assume that these media caricatures have damaged and even destroyed some lives by encouraging young African-Americans to think that they are worth less because their physical appearance is different than those TV characters who are more often portrayed to be capable or admirable.

There was a time in my life when I didn’t believe that media images could be so powerful. It’s not that my attitude completely changed on one particular day, but I do recall one especially memorable day. In 2001, my wife (Anne) and I traveled to China to adopt our second daughter (our first daughter is also Chinese). While we were staying in a hotel in Changsha, Hunan Province, I decided to carry my new 9-month old daughter to a nearby department store to get some baby supplies. At that department store, I was surprised to see so many Caucasian mannequins. I took a photo of one of these displays. Back at the hotel, I asked two English-speaking Chinese tour guides why there were so many Caucasian mannequins, rather than Chinese mannequins. They both told me, without hesitation, that Chinese women think that Anglo women are more beautiful. I was incredulous when I heard this. But after it sunk in, it became a sad idea, indeed. I had just adopted my second daughter from China. She was a startlingly beautiful little baby. Back in Changsha, hoped that it would never occur to my daughter that she was not “pretty” because she was not Anglo.

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A required course is worse than an elective.

| February 19, 2009 | 9 Replies
A required course is worse than an elective.

I wrote the initial draft of this post using my Ipod’s Wordpress application, tip-tapping away as I sat in the very class that inspired it.

A required class is worse than an elective class. A simple and inevitable process ensures this. Making any college course a requirement for graduation ensures that more students will enroll in the course. This enrollment will necessarily include disinterested students- kids who would never take the class if they didn’t have to. These students will only meet the minimum standards to achieve graduation.

A mass of disinterested students sucks the life out of a classroom. Responses must be pulled like so many teeth, and more people sleep and scribble on their desks than take notes. Out of boredom, a few play games on their laptops or write blog entries on their iPods. No one makes the effort to go over the required readings. No one shows up to class if they have a choice. Usually, attendance is made into a requirement itself.

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A tumultuous story told by a stone with streaks of pure iron

| February 19, 2009 | 1 Reply
A tumultuous story told by a stone with streaks of pure iron

Back in December, I had the chance to walk through New York’s Museum of Natural History with Ebonmuse (of Daylight Atheism). He pointed out an exquisite stone from the Proterozoic Eon. You could plainly see broad streaks of pure iron running from side to side. Such streaks could never form today, due to our oxygen-rich environment. That observation was the beginning of a mind-expanding yet poetic story. I learned a bit of that story back in December. Now, Ebonmuse tells a much more expansive and dramatic version. Here’s an excerpt, but I’d highly recommend a visit to Daylight Atheism for the full dose:

Looking at this stone, you get some idea of the dizzying vistas of geological time, as well as the turmoil that life has endured to reach the present day. Each of those colorful red and silver layers represents what was, in its own era, a disaster beyond imagining, one that reset life to its starting point. Each of those layers, as well, is a silent testament to life’s tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds. Of course, the cycles of growth and destruction did not last forever. Eventually, evolution found a way, as evolution nearly always does, and oxygen was tamed to become a power source in an entirely new metabolic cycle. The oxygen-breathers arose, the remaining anaerobes retreated to the deep crevices of rocks and the sea, and life found a new equilibrium, with the balance of the atmosphere permanently changed. All the oxygen we breathe today is biologically produced, a tangible proof of life’s power to reshape its own world.

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Musak is in big financial trouble: files for bankruptcy

| February 19, 2009 | 5 Replies
Musak is in big financial trouble: files for bankruptcy

A ubiquitous and uniquely American art form is in grave danger. On February 10, 2009, Muzak Holdings LLC filed for bankruptcy protection. You know, Muzak, often referred to as “elevator music“:

The style of music used was deliberately bland, so as not to intrude on foreground tasks, and adhered to precise limitations in tempo and dynamics. This style of music blended into the background as intended in most situations, but was sometimes noticeable (particularly in quiet spaces such as elevators). Thus the word “Muzak” began to be used as a pejorative for this type of “elevator music.”

Muzak is an acquired taste. I suspect that many of you haven’t invested the necessary time to come to terms with Muzak. It takes persistence and a wide-open sense of musicality to enjoy this specialized art form. Muzak itself has been at fault for much of this lack of appreciation. Consider Muzak’s obstinate failure to take its music and its musicians on nationwide tours and its failure to provide Muzak-appreciation courses for grade-school students. Nor has Muzak taken the time to go into the inner cities to enrich the lives of underprivileged children with its idiosyncratic art form. Perhaps, though, these failures were all for the best, give the attendant risk to enjoying Muzak: based on my own personal experience, Muzak is capable of triggering an especially pernicious and annoying form of earworm.

On a serious note, Muzak-type music has intentionally been employed as a social repellent:

During the last ten years, another use of elevator music has emerged, not with the aim of relaxation and pleasure, but to make loitering less attractive for those people who dislike the music (allegedly aimed toward drug addicts, prostitutes). For this purpose serious classical music (e.g. opera, marches or sonatas) is used and played louder than usual. One of the first places it was tested was in Amsterdam.

The bottom line is that Muzak is struggling and we might need to figure out what else we can possibly do in elevators and stores. Maybe we’ll have to work harder to become interesting to ourselves.

Consider, finally, The Onion’s requiem for Muzak.

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224-word palindrome

| February 19, 2009 | 1 Reply
224-word palindrome

Here it is. Wow. The title is “Dammit I’m Mad.” How in the world does one do something like this? How can anyone have time to create such a complicated work, especially when he has more than 160,000 friends?

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