Archive for August, 2007

CrashFest

Posted: August 21, 2007 in Taste

I don’t usually think in terms of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, though I acknowledge those terms may mean something to others. (I also read a bit about “nobrow” recently, but that’s too far afield to discuss now.) For me, value comes more from instrinsic quality than from the category in which a cultural offering falls. It’s pure snobbery to believe that highbrow is by definition superior and lowbrow is slumming. My interests tend to skew toward high culture, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t also like aspects of low culture. On the fun scale, tastes vary widely, and so much for the better.

Earlier this summer, I did something I would never have guessed I would do: I went to see a car race. I’d watched a few on TV as a kid, but I really never had any interest in attending as an adult. (Similarly, I can’t imagine ever going to a rodeo.) A coworker attended last season and kept telling the stories again and again, saying that it was just too much fun and had to be seen to be believed. However, this wasn’t just any car race; it was CrashFest. The Illiana Motor Speedway has held this event for a few years, and it’s grown quite popular. The drivers were mostly amateurs and the cars were often in questionable condition. The night began with a few warm-up races, some of which were straight gags. For instance, the Toll Road Rage Race was memorable. Drivers had to deposit tokens in barrels on every lap; the winner had the most successful drops. Another race was done in reverse gear. The real attractions, though, were the Figure 8 Schoolbus Race and the Trailer Race.

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I don’t read much fiction, but from time to time I get twisted about some classic or standard I haven’t read. (No, the Harry Potter series doesn’t count.) With that in mind, I pulled Brave New World by Aldous Huxley off the library shelf, which is published by Perennial Library together with Brave New World Revisited. Whereas the former is a novel written in the early 1930s, the latter is a nonfiction essay written in the mid-1960s that provides social commentary on the dystopian world of the novel compared to the real world. Thirty years’ hindsight makes for some especially thoughtful commentary in the essay. Indeed, though I’m not really familiar with current fiction, it’s difficult to imagine writers today with an ambition to contribute to 21st-century intellectual history the way the writers of previous centuries did.

I’m probably in a small minority, not having read and studied Brave New World in high school or college. So I’m completely ignorant of the themes and motifs one would uncover and discuss in a English teacher-led classroom analysis. (Frankly, I don’t care about such analyses anymore, so any bonehead mistakes or omissions of mine are just fine. I’m not taking a test.)

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Unintended Consequences

Posted: August 11, 2007 in Blogosphere, Education

Newsday.com has a brief article about Brainy Baby and Baby Einstein videos marketed by Brainy Baby Co. and Walt Disney Co. Commentary has been all over the blogosphere for the past few days. In short, the article says that children exposed to visual stimulation fare worse than those exposed to storytelling and reading as determined by the size of the children’s vocabularies.

Um, could this be any more obvious? Teach words and kids learn vocabulary. Teach images and kids learn … what … more images? It also seems rather obvious that kids would prefer visual to verbal stimulation, much as they prefer sugary foods to veggies. The ironic thing, funny perhaps if it weren’t so insipid, is that parents who take their cues from corporations selling this junk innocently believe they’re doing their kids a favor when in fact the kids are being stunted — a classic case of unintended consequences.

One of my favorite authors, Neil Postman, recommends that even primary education be suffused with semantic analysis of the information environment. Why? So that we can better understand this:

To oversimplify more than is probably justified, we might say that (1) because of the symbolic forms in which information is encoded, different media have different intellectual and emotional biases; (2) because of the accessibility and speed of their information, different media have different political biases; (3) because of the physical form, different media have different sensory biases; (4) because of the conditions in which we attend to them, different media have different social biases; (5) because of the technical and economic structure, different media have different content biases. [from Postman’s Teaching as a Conserving Activity]

If teachers and parents better understood the various biases of information to which children are exposed, would they ever even consider admitting things such as TV, video games, iPods, and various other electronics into children’s daily lives, much less buying into the fatuous notion that these things are educational tools?

Not Quite Abject Terror

Posted: August 3, 2007 in Friendship, Health

Tomorrow I do the first of three races scheduled for the month of August. This one is the Steelhead 70.3 Triathlon in Benton Harbor, Michigan (that’s 70.3 miles). My preparations have been perhaps less diligent than I would have liked in the last two weeks, especially after I fell and scraped by leg pretty horrifically playing softball. That wound is healed well enough by now to do the swim leg (1.2 miles) on a relay team for the Steelhead event. My boss, who roped me into the whole triathlon thing a year and a half ago, is doing the bike leg (56 miles), and a coworker (stepping in at the last moment for our injured teammate) is running the half marathon at the end (13.1 miles).

My typical workout in the pool is 2600 to 3200 yards. The race distance is about 2000 yards, so I’m OK with the distance except that I usually do intervals of no more than 500 yards and get to turn at the walls and push off. Blasting all the way through 2000 yards will be a different sort of challenge. I just recently bought a wetsuit (knee length and w/o shoulders or arms) and have practiced in it a couple times, which is like wearing a corset. (Yes, I cut a strapping figure in the wetsuit — not.) So my middle upper back is sore right now from the extra strain of breathing. My arms and shoulders are fine. The real benefit of the wetsuit is increased buoyancy.

What really interests me this go-round is that my boss and I both admitted to partially sleepless nights last night, and all day we’ve been nauseous and nervous in expectation of the pains we’ll suffer doing our races. (The runner is more experienced and hasn’t copped to any trepidation.) Having done several 5Ks and the Chicago Triathlon last year, I might have anticipated being less weird about it. However, my mood has been awfully intense all day. I can’t speak to what soldiers must feel going into battle, or cops busting through doorways, but I’m surprisingly and unaccountably nervous, perhaps a few notches short of abject terror. I know some get that sensation in musical performance or public speaking (neither of which pose difficulty for me). The best thing I can say about it is that the experience offers me another aspect of the range of human emotion in a safe environment.