Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Phillies vs. Obama

If it comes between watching the Phillies win tonight and being disenchanted by a third presidential debate, I think I'll take the former. I'm banking on my team knowing how to play baseball better than my candidate knowing how to debate.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman explains how the format of political debates (among other things) has been cut into a visually-oriented presentation that takes away the intellectual spar that characterizes a debate, due to the medium on which it is presented: television. Because television has a certain program schedule, the debate cannot under any circumstance run any longer than the time slot allowed by the network, no matter how important anything that anyone has to say. In the debates this year, each candidate has been allowed about 2 minutes to answer a question asked by the presider, and say, a one-minute follow-up per candidate. These time restraints limit the substance of their responses, so rather than constructing well-supported arguments that might require more time, they are forced to economize their answers in a way that will elicit the most response from a general audience in a short period of time. No time for in-depth responses, nothing that will challenge the status quo of values, no follow-up questions from the audience even in the faux "town-hall format." In other words, a 75 minute series of commercials.

Postman goes on to talk about the how medium of television has watered down the general expectation of intellectual substance in both politics and education. Because it is not interactive, because it presents no opportunity for dialogue, it is not a medium for democracy. And because television, as a visual medium, must constantly be visually stimulating. Otherwise, no one will pay attention. The big networks believe this. Compare the flashy icons, bells-and-whistles programming on CNN and Fox to cut-and-dry style of PBS. Which network is being watched more?

Even watching this game on Fox gives me a headache. Almost half the screen is blotched with icons. And every other play is interceded by some playback sponsored by some fast food or SUV corporation.

I've compromised and decided to watch the debate between the Phillies at the plate. Or I could just watch the campaign ads during commercial breaks....

Saturday, May 31, 2008

If you want to be a good archaeologist, you've got to get out of the library.

-Indiana Jones

Or how about the university?

Or this stupid laptop, with which I am cultivating this love-hate relationship day to day. While it is indispensible for writing, storing, and organizing information, more time in front of it than is necessary for these things just represents to me how much I am not doing something else.

On the other hand, what archaeology of human thought can be found as readily as it can be right here on the webpages of abandoned blogs? Do these qualify as artifacts?

I leave that to someone else, because inevitably useful as it is, my life is bent on trying to understand everything outside this box.

Monday, May 26, 2008

grown-ups need playgrounds

"You look like a bat hanging there," a little black girl said to me, no older than 9 or 10 years, as I hung upside down on the monkey bars at the playground today.

I helped Soraya, temporarily in my care on the good faith of her parents a short walk away, as she tried to grab on to the next bar while she hung on the first one. "I can't do it!" She jumped down. The black girl tried after her. After a few bars she also gave up.

"I used to be able to do it," she said. "But now I'm fat."

"Me, too, I'm fat," repeated Soraya.

Where did they learn to say such a thing?

It seemed like the United Nations called a picnic day at Marsh Creek. There were people of all colors, ages, religions, and my white skin was practically a minority. Not really tempered to being around children, it was so refreshing to see how open they were with each other to take turns or help (or ask for help) regardless of any racial or gender differences.

A pat on my leg turned out to be a tiny Asian girl pointing to a low platform that was still too high for her to reach herself. No words. A clear, simple message.

"Is that your daughter? Is that your son?" said the first girl, referring to those knee-highs that had enlisted my help. What a great way to feel useful in a short period of time.

"No. I am only attached to that one." I pointed to Soraya.

I have no idea who these kids are, I wanted to say.

I think grown-ups need playgrounds.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The BA is the most overrated product in America.

- Marty Nemko in his article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

And while I couldn't agree more, along with some other assessments that he makes, I took a slight issue with the overtones of Nemko's rhetoric, which seemed to emphasize the disparity between "college material" and "not college material," or stellar/nonstellar student, without acknowledging other qualities a person might have about himself. This kind of language only perpetuates the problem of kids being ashamed not to attend college.

He also encouraged releasing more accurate statistics on college success and providing certain guarantees as you would any other commodity. One of higher education's greatest flaws is that it has become a commodity, and that is what makes it an overrated one. As Nemko said, colleges are there to make money, but he doesn't tackle this as a problem. His solutions only call for standards which other manufacturers are expected to hold, rather than revamping the whole system as an institution in the service of the public and greater knowledge.

Going to his blog explained my reservations. He is a staunch libertarian who definitely sees one's lot in life as deserved according to the hard work or laziness of the individual. Nemko is dismayed at the idea of a universal healthcare system that would force "people with good health care (because they were good enough of an employee to be hired for a job with health insurance, had saved up enough money to buy their own, or on Medicare) having to give up that good health care and pay for health care for others', including, for example, lazy heroin addicts and illegal aliens."

Now I understand the source of the language and how it may extend to what I heard on NPR. To say "elitist" may still be a gut reaction, but the free market talk struck an appropriately dissonant chord. Libertarians have to see why the free market cannot and will not exist, and in this case, that education should be an investment by the society in itself. People who think that they got to a certain place exclusively due to their own hard work are deluding themselves. No one can make it alone, and no one has absolute control over circumstance.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Outsourcing Thoughts

I must:

Explain what I saw.
Explain what I think about what I saw.
Explain why I think what I think about what I saw.
Use what others think about what they saw to explain why I think what I think about what I saw.

So much for my own interpretations. They are useless without other people's ideas to support them. I thought I should get some credit for having come up with them on my own, but there is apparently no merit in saying something that someone else has already said.

On I go, burrowing deeper into JSTOR to pick up the pieces of my thoughts from other writers.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Pig farming in Morocco

This morning the BBC reported on the growing pork industry in Morocco, despite the Islamic prohibitions of pork consumption. They interviewed a pig farmer outside of Casablanca, who seemed quite satisfied and without qualm with his occupation. Others express their opposition that pork farming is forbidden as well as pork eating.

Pork-serving restaurants are popping up in the big cities like Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakech, although they will certainly meet significantly more resistance outside those boundaries. Demand stems from foreign tourists, expatriates, and, according to the farmer, young Moroccan bourgeouise who are eating more pork. When asked if he thought it was a problem, the farmer said people also drink wine, which of course is also forbidden. The everything-but-pork paradox he alluded to is something to be fathomed, but then again, who is to judge where is the beam or the splinter?

Which one religious leader seemed to echo when he said, "It is up to them," for his thoughts on the pig farmers. They will be held responsible before God.

Assertive enough for the religious side, but there might be a more earthly consequence for cultural identity. This certainly must be one piece of that paradox. Two things I am sure of: One is that a few weeks in a foreign country without pork never killed anyone. The other is that this is one more example of the changes and challenges that tourism brings to Morocco.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

too little too late

"What a great country this is. We're all having hard financial times so the government just says 'Here's $600 for you.'"

And Bush says it will help to offset rising gas and food prices.

I mean, if I was in deep now, this $600 would be like a spritz of Dolce and Gabbana. $600 would be just perfect for someone that just needed help with one month's rent to finish paying off Christmas bills. The people that it would make that kind of a difference to are a) ahead of the game already and b) a minority. For a lot of people $600 won't knock a single digit off their debt, that is, if that's where they choose to put it.

Not to say I wouldn't take it as happily as the next guy. I am not eligible anyway so I can rant. I would still rant even if I was, because I don't need it, and if I really did need it, it certainly would not offset my need. Better that they keep it. Buy out the health insurance companies. Heal the war veterans. Fix public transit. Subsidize gas prices if you want it to help so much.

For those of us who don't need it, the money will go into savings. For those of us who do, it is hardly worth putting toward our debts. It becomes play money, not ready to be spent rationally, which, if it was, would be going toward public interest. Maybe, as I was told, that is the point.

Monday, April 21, 2008

the whole world is watching

Today's Democratic primary in Pennsylvania may decide the nomination, and more, we hope, the election.

I shamefully confess that I did not register Democrat in time, so I will not be able to vote in this primary. But I have been surveying and cheering every time someone says they will vote for Obama, for whom I have heard a lot of support. Some people have straight-up told me they don't vote, which is disappointing. Others are in my same boat - didn't register in time. Regardless, I am cheering on the elections to favor Obama.

During my last trip to Morocco it was fascinating to hear about coverage on the primary races. Everyone knows that this is a real shot at changing the dark course of the past 8 years, and that the next President of the United States will have an impact on people all over the world. Now that my home state, and more especially, the Philadelphia suburbs, can make or break the campaign, I feel like the world spotlight is shining on us. I hope so much that we follow up.

"Soon," a friend of mine told me, "the nightmare will be over."

Friday, April 18, 2008

Kula ringtones

An article in the NYT this past week describes the life of the Jan Chipchase, an anthropologist working for Nokia who researches how a cell phone can be most useful to people in growing cities of the "developing" world.

Corporate jobs are a swelling pool of opportunity for anthropologists, who can provide valuable insight on untapped markets. These opportunities lead us to question whether or not we are compromising those values that originally brought [most of] us to the field. To some the corporate job is the selling of self and culture for profit. In the harm-reduction camp, the insight that anthropology provides can help companies approach these markets in ways that can suit both parties more appropriately.

The end of the applied anthropologist, which [I think] ought to be defined primarily by an understanding of a culture, is compromised by that uncompromisable end of the corporation's, which is profit, whose only interest in culture is that which is relevant to it. There is no going back to the boss here to say "I think these people are just fine without cell phones." And true, that would be a tough pitch to make anyway because what quality of life could not benefit from the immediate access to information given by the cell phone? In case you had any doubts, allow them to rub the softest spot in the debate on the graces of technology, which is health and medicine. The article lists some convincing examples, although in a country where maybe 10 people might exist without a cell phone, I still can't text message any doctor for medical advice.

Not long after comes the Wishmaster mechanism, which in this case, couldn't be more blatant. Researchers ask inhabitants of a city in Ghana to sketch their dream phone which, as the author realizes, reveals dreams themselves. Dreams that a mobile phone corporation would love to sell back. In the meantime, nightmares ravage the Democratic Republic of the Congo where rebel groups, committing some of the most gruesome acts on the planet, are funded by the mining of coltan, a mineral used to build computer chips such as those used in cell phones.

On one side we have the corporate machine, which has left the anthropologist with not a single way of life to study that has been untouched by its hegemony. On the other we have anthropology, which [we hope] champions an understanding of other cultures for more than just how they can increase profits. The best hope for these corporate anthropology departments is that they will advise companies on more sensitive approaches to those cultures that they will penetrate anyway, one way or another. I don't think there is much getting around that these cultures stand to lose as much as they stand to gain, if at least the sight of its own sacrifice. I wonder if the corporate ethnographer can relate.