Archive for March, 2011

30 March, 2011

Gothic Fairytales

I ran across these beautiful images from Japanese photographer Miwa Yanagi, and thought they were worth sharing.

More after the break.

 

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19 March, 2011

This is Water

I think sometimes it is just as important to hear an author speak as it is to read their words in print. This is why I love David Sedaris’s involvement with NPR, and why I love when authors (again, like Sedaris, and also Neil Gaiman) read their own works. It’s fantastic.

Here’s David Foster Wallace, giving a commencement speech that is about consciousness, essentially. One of my professors brought it to my attention via Facebook.

It’s long. It is also worth your while. Take some time and just listen. You probably owe yourself a break, anyway.

Also, for your pleasure:

David Sedaris on Easter, in Grammatically Unstable French.

14 March, 2011

Pi Day | On language, literacy, and intelligence, as we understand them…

Today I’m a reading teacher, which is the inspiration for today’s line of inquiry. As I was sitting across from a well-spoken teenager who struggles with reading, I really started thinking about the way we measure intelligence in the 21st century.

We live in a world of standards and schematics–especially in education. There’s a number, graph, ratio, or descriptive box to fit everything in. We live in a world of staggering amounts of information.

To access it, however, you usually have to be literate. Language, literacy, and intelligence are inexorably bound up together. What does it mean to be well-spoken, but unable to read, then? It certainly puts you at a disadvantage, but I don’t believe that being unable to read means that you are unintelligent, or even less capable than that guy reading James Joyce in the coffee shop.

Literacy as a primary measure of intellectual competence is a very modern concept– consider that not long ago most adults in the developed world were illiterate. The measure of “literacy” has admittedly changed: in Romantic era Britain, literacy meant being able to read and sign your own name. Now the demands of literacy are a little more comprehensive.

Not just anyone could write like Keats…literally. Even with such a limited definition of literacy, most Romantic-era Britons were illiterate.

However, these illiterate people (and generations before them) could “read” allegorical artwork, they could consider themselves “versed” in local history, politics, mythology, etc. They could possess great quantities of information and understand complex concepts, just not via written language. Comparatively, today most Americans are “literate,” but it’s debatable how much they really understand what they read, and deplorable how little they really ruminate on and retain.

I have this notion that personalities go in and out of style. With those trending personalities, I figure that styles of learning and communicating–and the corresponding perception of a person’s intelligence–go with it.

I often wonder if the personality of that kind of an “illiterate” society is necessarily different from our “literate” American society today. Compare the pedantic, distant intellectual authority of someone like Stephen Hawking to the trendy, almost foppish behavior of Aristotle:

When [Aristotle] arrived [at Plato’s Academy] practically everyone noticed him, in part because he was something of a dandy. Plato is reported to have said that Aristotle paid more attention to his clothes than was proper for a philosopher.  To be fashionable, Aristotle cultivated a deliberate lisp, the speech pattern that the Greek elite used to separate themselves from the masses.

Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy by Douglas J. Soccio (pg. 154)

Could we take him seriously today, given that he doesn’t fit with the intellectual mold? Could you take a Fabio seriously if he started talking about Nichomachean Ethics?

Similarly, compare the speaking prowess of George W. Bush to that of Cicero. I’m stacking the deck here, but really think about the social circumstances that make these personalities possible, or even probable. My background in Roman history is not strong enough that I’m willing to make claims that a speaker like Bush (bumbling, frequently mincing words, almost purposefully nervous and halting) could not exist, but it seems a far less likely.

Note: I’m not saying that all Greeks and Romans were Aristotles and Ciceros, or that all Americans are Hawkings and Bushes. I’m pointing out that these are the notable personalities that are likely to survive our era. No matter how you feel about his politics, you have to admit that President Bush II was memorable. Plus, now that you know that Aristotle was man-pretty, you probably want to know more (this, sadly, is one of the things that hooked me.)

borrowed from a rather dated article on "Candide's Latest"

I’d be fascinated to study the shift from interpersonal oral discourse to written language as a means of primary learning. You could argue that we still do use the former in the United States, but lecturing is strongly discouraged in K-12. You physically and mentally can’t sit for lectures as a younger student–I’m not sure most students ever outgrown this lecture handicap, either. You’re not going to excel if you can’t function with written language. Almost all assessments are written language, unless you have testing modifications.

I also have to wonder, with the increase in technology and the readily available adaptations, will the importance of written communication decrease, and illiteracy (in the sense that we know it) rise? With so much done for us, delivered to us, via means such as the television, radio, and Youtube video, will people stop reading?

HAPPY PI DAY, by the way (I spent my morning convincing students that tomorrow is the better holiday– Julius Caesar Commemorative Stabbing Day. Being that they’re teenaged boys, they bought my argument. Stabbings are a little more special than pie and math puns.)

12 March, 2011

Memento Mori

I think I have at least alluded to the pathetic state of my memory– it’s one of the reasons why I write. I write to remember. My brain is very, very good at forgetting. It has relegated important conversations to the space of dreams, and sometimes erased them all together.

Strange things get burned into my grey matter– I remember learning about cavities in kindergarten, and clouds in first grade. I remember being outraged at my kindergarten graduation present (Barney cookie cutters), but none of the names of my classmates. I remember learning the meaning of the middle finger, but still know the name of my first grade crush only because I wrote it down in a Lisa Frank diary with a bubblegum-dispenser-shaped lock on it. Needless to say, I broke the lock years later and devoured the memories hidden there (and then promptly forgot most of them again.)

I often wonder if there is a logic to what we remember and forget, or if the resonance is too abstract for even us to understand why some things get dutifully filed away, while so much is lost.

What will I forget, in a year? In a month? In a day? How long will it take me to forget, for example, the color of your eyes, or the incident with the cell phone? The time(s) time stopped? How long before even these obscure references don’t ring true? I leave myself these breadcrumbs back to my memories, hoping (usually in vain) that years later I’ll know. I’ll remember what I felt so strongly, what shook me to my core, and what adventures I had. Or, at least, that’s what I hope.

“Your memory is a monster; you forget—it doesn’t. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you—and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you.” –

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

4 March, 2011

The American Skeuomorph

A skeuomorph is, basically, an ornament that imitates an earlier, functional incarnation of itself. It is something like the studs on your jeans–which once had a function but are now little more than a decorative accent– or the pocket watch pocket in pants and jackets. Like tiny ghosts, they slip under the radar, never questioned, never removed.

I’ve been thinking for several days about skeuomorphs now, since I stumbled upon them at the beginning of this week. Why do we hang on to these bits of antiquity? Why does the design feel so empty without them? Is it just tradition, or is it a subconscious demand to have something that places us as a link to the past? To something recognizable?

When you’re writing science fiction or fantasy it is always recommended not to stray too far from the familiar– readers need something to fit their fingers around. They need a schematic. Much like a skeuomorph, this schematic is only there as a link to something earlier. Something recognizable. Without it, you can alienate readers– effectively put them into something like culture shock.

Another thought: consider the jargon that gets used in American media all the time that places the United States as a firmly Christian country (despite declining church attendance and affiliation) and rhetoric that suggests we are the greatest world power, and always will be (despite the rise of other countries, such as China). As time moves forward, “old-fashioned American values” and “the American dream” have had less of a tangible role in coming-of-age in America, yet the language lives on. I expect it will continue to live on, as well. Like the pocket watch pocket, its function is minimal (and occasionally re-imagined), and yet, it endures. It is part of the standard design, and without it we would feel somehow incomplete.

“American Love; like coke in green glass bottles…they don’t make it anymore.”

-Alan Moore The Watchmen

 

This has nothing to do with my thoughts on Skeuomorphs, but I have been here, and so has someone else, apparently:

This has happened to me.