Friday, June 29, 2007

News Bulletin

It was an exciting day:
  • Lance and I have been planning to go to Spain for a while. Yesterday, we bought our plane tickets to do it! We'll be heading out after Christmas and coming back just before school starts. (Unfortunately I have to still use my passport with the horrible, horrible photo. "So?" you say to yourself, "Everyone's photo is bad". photo was taken when I was about 50 pounds heavier, so I really, really detest this passport photo. But I'm also cheap, and it doesn't expire until 2012. Drat.) So exciting!
  • We have a new kitten. My roommate and a friend of ours found a little flea-bitten calico kitten and decided to adopt her. We are currently defleaing her. Her name is Rowan. Rory hissed at her and flopped down on the floor to keep an eye on her. Rowan hisses only at people (until you pet her, and then she purrs) and was merely curious about the other cat in the house. This should be an entertaining adjustment period.
  • My dad quit smoking! Considering he's been smoking since the age of 17 (he's in his fifties now), this is a huge accomplishment. And it's also encouraged my mom to take some much needed steps toward improving her own health. Yay!
  • It's pay day. I've only got one month left until I'm completely out of debt.
I decided to share with you all the exciting things going on in my life over the past 24 hours. It's been fun.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Apostrophe War

I had a brief hiatus. My brain was not feeling up to thinking up something to write, so I didn't, but here's a new post.

Lance and I took a trip for a wedding this weekend (I was a bridesmaid). We made a gas stop, and I decided to take the opportunity to use the bathroom before we got on the road for the three hour trip. While in the ladies room, I noticed an amusing conversation on a sign from the management. It ended with "Thank's". I chuckled over this for a minute, but I was also amused by some handwritten comments on the sign.

Someone had taken a pen and scribbled out the obviously wrong apostrophe and wrote "NO APOSTROPHE". Someone else had later scribbled "Who cares?" The third (or possibly fourth) conversant added tartly, "The small percentage of Americans who are actually educated".

There's a weird tension that I run across in the attitudes toward being educated. For example, my mother always wanted me to use proper grammar so I wouldn't sound uneducated (and perhaps have ignorant parents), but she would mock or deliberately misunderstand any signs I showed of participating in higher education. (She hates discussions, for example, which I think are integral to academia). If you don't speak standard English, you could be labeled a hick (in Arkansas) and basically be called ignorant, stupid, or uneducated, but if you use a wide range of words, people laugh at you for being a nerd or a show-off.

Gerald Graff in Clueless in Academe (and probably some of his other books) addresses what he sees as America's anti-intellectualism. Aren't we a nation that prides itself itself on being full of working men (and women) who pull themselves up? Isn't that a part of the American dream, to go from nothing and work hard to make yourself into a success?

People want to be successful, but they don't want to be seen as too smart or intellectual. My mom called me an egghead because I got some of those glasses with the dark frames. It was a slight insult, an acknowledgment that I was purposefully adopting the nerd look (if that's what I was doing). My brothers and parents used to either imply or directly state that though I was "book smart", I had no "common sense", as if those things were mutually exclusive (I believe I was naive at that point in my life, but I'm fairly sure I've got a good measure of sense along with my book-smarts).

In one of my education classes, our professor asked us if we'd rather be highly gifted or of average intelligence, or if we'd rather deal with students with genius-level IQ scores, or those with below average scores. I immediately said that I'd rather be highly gifted, and that I'd rather work with intelligent students (but praise those who have the patience and love to work with students who are not so privileged); however, to my shock, many of my other classmates said that they would not like to have a high IQ because people who did were unable to socialize properly, were somehow outside of society, were nerds who didn't live in the same world they did, even though our professor told us that research shows that those with a high IQ are usually highly socialized, able to move successfully in the world, and typically function as normal individuals. But those students could not get out of their minds the image of the nerd: the awkward, unsociable individual who is out of touch with pop culture and society, the one who plays video games and chess, and wears dark heavy framed glasses and pocket protectors.

There is a strong anti-intellectual streak in American culture. Perhaps that's why we have the president that we do.

However, the apostrophe war in the bathroom stall gives me (a little) hope that people do care about education, about being intelligent citizens. We may not all be grammar nerds (or nerds in general), but we can still care about the "life of the mind", improving ourselves through education, and being intelligent, capable individuals who can make the world better.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Because Wikipedia is Just Too Liberal

It's every conservative person's nightmare! Access to free information that people can edit? Yikes! The liberals will take over everything!

So they started the much inferior Conservapedia. And what they post is slightly terrifying for its closed minded talk and refusal to face the fact that not all of the liberals are out to destroy the truth. Their motto? "A conservative encyclopedia you can trust. The truth shall set you free." Their logo has an American flag as the background.

One: I don't trust any information because it's conservative or liberal. I'm suspicious unless the information is backed up and substantiated to my satisfaction. That's how you end up with mass genocides and other atrocities: blind trusting.

Two: The writing is terrible*. As in a fourth-grader wrote most of the articles.

Three: The articles are laughable. Check out Pat Robertson for example--the quotations (which they misuse throughout the article) are enough to make you fall out of your chair laughing.

Four: Their rules. (Also known as commandments). They're even better. My personal favorite is that "CE" and "BCE" are unacceptable because they remove the historical basis of "BC" and "AD" (maybe they don't realize that "AD" is anno domini, not "after death".) But I guess they don't understand that not all historians would feel comfortable using a dating system that is based on one religion. Read the comments--they are a hoot.

Five: Obviously bias means nothing to the writers. Because truth must be biased toward the conservative mindset, no? (Why did they feel the need to include that Nancy Pelosi is one of the richest members of Congress?). And obviously they have no better opinion of Hillary Clinton.

Well folks, I'll leave you to it. I simply wanted to shake my head at the anti-intellectual, anti-science madness of this site, where terms such as "objectivity" and "evidence" are disregarded. Luckily, RationalWiki was created to refute their unsubstantiated claims. Check out the Slacktivist's comments on it.

*My original intention was to bash their writing, but I got carried away with myself. Oops.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Wanted: Coherent Narrative

I went to the drive-in this past weekend (yes, we have a drive-in! It's awesome!) to see Pirates of the Caribbean: World's End. We had seen Dead Man's Chest the year before, so we thought it was fitting.

The movie was awful. It was made tolerable by quantities of Jack Sparrow's favorite beverage. Parts of it were certainly entertaining, but we kept asking each other, "What just happened?" and declaring "I don't understand what's going on!"*

I don't normally delve into the world of film (not my expertise), but the third film brought something to mind that I wanted to explore: the power of good storytelling. Good storytelling (visually or verbally) is more than just shiny flashy pretty things and catchy words. It requires a coherent narrative. And that coherent narrative was something that the third Pirates film was lacking. The first film was fun, had a fun story, and was thoroughly entertaining. The second and third? A ploy for more money because the structure broke down somewhere in the second one.

Let us compare it to another famous series: Harry Potter. It comes easily to mind because for one, I'm rereading them, and for another, they are one of the bestselling series of all time. Each novel has a self-contained narrative arc, but the series works together to form a whole, coherent narrative. Little things that showed up in one book return later. J.K. Rowling doesn't just randomly spring twists on her reader; she carefully sets them up so that the reader says to herself, "Ah! I remember Mrs. Figg now! That's why she's there!" Rowling is clever with her storytelling, and she is a master of the art of storytelling.

When creating a good story, remember: you can't just spring things randomly on your viewer/reader--if you want to surprise them really well, you set it up before hand so that the surprise is even better because the evidence was right under their noses. And it doesn't come from nowhere and entail the characters acting in ways that the reader/viewer doesn't expect.

*What was up with the random wedding in the middle of the battle? And how many times did each character double-cross the other characters? And WHY did Calypso turn into a bunch of crabs?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Who Was That Masked Ad?

Newspapers have a great and interesting history. They are cheap and easy to publish and disseminate, so political movements have used them to spread their ideas. Both conservatives and liberals, people with good ideas and crazy make use of the glory of newsprint to get people fired up for change.

But today--in my mailbox I get something that is called "Citizen News Weekly". Sounds like a potential fun, liberal newspaper, right? Ohhh no, it's not. It's a piece of crap Hynudai advertisement that is pretending to be a newspaper. I was neither entertained, convinced of a political ideology, nor amused by this ploy.

I hate advertising sometimes. It takes perfectly legitimate forms of expression (and the conventions associated with those forms) and twists them to catch a potential consumer's attention. I don't like being tricked, or having my own understanding of my culture and society used against me.

What I really hate is how it seems that our energies and impulses toward activism and world change are being absorbed and thwarted by consumerism. We no longer have the same vigor for activism because we're selling our ideas for security, for nice things, for having what we want. And I implicate myself in this--it's easy to go to the Gap and buy a nice pair of jeans without thinking of how little workers in China are getting paid to provide me these comfortable pair of jeans.

I didn't exactly mean to go on an anti-consumerism rant, but it's difficult when you love forms of expression for their rich history, just to see them co-opted by advertising. And I realize that papers are full of advertisements, but this one purposefully set out to trick me into thinking it was an independent paper of the same ilk as our Free Weekly, which is dedicated to the community. It hoped to use my knowledge of that form to convince me I need a new piece of crap car (because that's what Hyundais are). And it kills trees just to tell me something I have no interest in.

I hate advertising.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Making Things

I'm a creative person. I like thinking up good ideas for papers, writing them. I do a little creative writing on the side.

But I also make things. Like a skirt. I made myself a long black skirt for a wedding I am in next week. And while it could be better, it looks pretty good for a first attempt at skirt making. I used this book, which teaches you how to make skirts without patterns. I am inordinately proud of my skirt, and might make another this week out of some linen Lance bought for me from Ikea.

I also make books, as I've shown before. So now I'm going to post pictures of a book I made for the same wedding as the skirt!

(longstitch binding)

Here's a better shot of the spine stitching


I picked a cool endpaper too!

(Chinese character paper)

I started making books last August and have really progressed--this is one that I figured out how to make myself! It's a neat skill to have, and I love making books for friends.

Friday, June 15, 2007

100th Post! (And Thesis, Perhaps?)

It's only fitting that on my 100th post, I would tell you, my dear readers, about the brilliant idea (at least brilliant by comparison to the NOTHING I had before) I have had for what to write my thesis on. This will soon become a recurrent theme, I fear, so be prepared. But for now, simply celebrate or offer your thoughts on my thesis idea.

I work for the College of Engineering. I am an administrative assistant who is in touch with both professors and students on a daily basis. Several of both have opinions that they like to share with me about English literature and writing.

I've been contemplating going for a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, which means I perhaps should move in that direction during my MA days. That's when the idea occurred to me (this past weekend, actually, around breakfast time): What if I were to do research on creating a freshman composition/writing class geared toward engineers (or other technical/science fields) to teach them the skills they need to use for their professional lives? It wouldn't be "technical writing" per se, but help them realize that the same skills that go into writing an academic essay are the same that they will employ when writing a lab report or a project proposal.

The project would have several parts. In the first, I would examine the need for freshman composition in the first place (which obviously I would argue there is a need for it). Then I would do research on alternative methods of teaching such a class. I'm planning to interview several of the engineering professors, and perhaps some engineering firms/employers and students to further assess what the class should contain, then I would build a syllabus, reading list, and prospective course to teach.

I'm really excited about this project because I can see the implications for my university for one, but it might perhaps be of interest to other programs as well. A little tweaking, and the same concepts could be applied to other programs of study. I'm also excited because it is a lot of fun to design a class--I loved the one that I did for my professing literature class. It was a lot of fun, and my professor really loved it.

Anyway, there's the thesis idea. I've pitched it to my potential thesis adviser and am now awaiting a reply. And I've already mentioned to the engineering professors I want to use in it, and they've all been excited as well, so I have a feeling this is going to be my project! Yay for thesis ideas!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass, an amazing book by Philip Pullman, is being made into a movie. The site looked pretty neat, so I went and played for a while and created a daemon, which in the novel is the manifest part of your soul as a creature. The site lets you take a personality quiz, and then assigns you a daemon. Mine is a tiger--but it might be wrong. So in my sidebar, you can click and take a quiz to see if I'm right!

Edit: apparently the sidebar quiz is a little funky, so here's a direct link to take it...

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


I've been delving wholeheartedly into the world of podcasts. I think they're great--and if I ever got my iPod an iTrip, I could listen to them while riding in the car on long trips.

The newest podcast that I've encountered is The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor. Many will know Garrison Keillor as the host of A Prairie Home Companion (which I adore). The Writer's Almanac is a daily podcast, about 6 minutes long, that gives a bit of literary history and concludes with Garrison Keillor* reading a poem. I love it--you should check it out. Today is Anne Frank's birthday, so the episode was about her life and now famous diary. Yesterday's poem "The Calf Path" by Sam Walter Foss was a hilarious poem. You can check the website for transcripts of the episodes as well, if you prefer to read the poems as well as hear Garrison Keillor read them aloud.

(*I find myself at a loss when I try to type just "Garrison" or "Keillor" or "Mr. Keillor". No matter what I try, I seem to only be able to refer to Garrison Keillor as his full name, Garrison Keillor.)

Monday, June 11, 2007

Knitters' Coffee Swap--Received!

I got my package from my pal! (after an unfortunate delay and a re-addressing incident).


Thank you, thank you, RACHEL! It was fantastic--it contains a ton of coffee, 4 skeins of really nifty yarn (2 skeins of sock yarn! And some great Nashua wool/alpaca)! That green round disc on the front is a pocket mirror, which I'm happy about because I've been wanting one to stick in my purse, since I don't wear makeup. And the other is wonderful arty buttons. Instant City, the book in the back, is a literary journey through San Francisco. There is also a project bag (you can barely see it peaking out) for socks, a journal, a David/Amy Sedaris book, and a Knit.1 magazine. I feel so spoiled--thank you again. It was totally worth the wait.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Step Away From the Credit Card (NOT BUYING IT)

Could you go a year without shopping? While you could still buy essentials (non-processed food, soap, toilet paper, etc), what would it be like to go an entire year without shopping for new clothes, new books, and anything else strictly unnecessary?

Judith Levine in her book Not Buying It takes on this task: to go one year without shopping. She recruits her partner Paul on the endeavor, and they vow to only spend money on the necessities (no processed food or sweets count). So no eating out, no picking up a little something, no shopping for new clothes, no shopping for gifts. The experiment spans 2004--the last presidential election--and she structures the book in a diary format with each month forming a theme about consumerism and buying.

Levine explores the nature of consumerism and American culture's shopping habits. She also takes a look at what it is to need and to want, to shop consciously, and to understand the implications of spending on the global community. She learns that the public systems (libraries, art, etc) are in serious disrepair from a citizenship that is reluctant to pay taxes. Levine also reads a lot of anthropologists, philosophers, talks to individuals who take part of movements like Voluntary Simplicity and Buy Nothing Day. Levine participates in 2004 Buy Nothing Day (here's a photo from the event she describes):

(Reverend Billy nails the Nine Theses Against Corporate Rule on a New York McDonald's)

Not only an exploration of her own habits and impulses as a consumer, Not Buying It is a book about seeking alternatives. She talks to anyone from an average consumer to a man who lives off of less than $5,000 a year. She talks to individuals who want to simplify their life in a Thoreauvian gesture, but can't quite do it.

The book's strength is in the way it looks out. Levine uses her experiment as a personal starting point or as a place to ground these larger questions. Capitalism within the United States is spinning out of control and we're buying it. We're buying the idea that it's normal and natural to want things, to want to make money. We're also buying Bush's declaration that the best way to recover from September 11th is to buy more stuff. (We have to show the terrorists what they're missing in typical imperialist style). Levine doesn't want to buy it anymore. Her experiment helps her grow in many personal ways, but she points out that when she wasn't spending on herself, she was donating more to helping others. She was involved more in the public (free) sphere of her community. Perhaps we all could do so much.

I picked up this book because even though I readily contribute to the consumerist lifestyle (and love to shop), it bothers me. I may have more disposable income now than ever before, and while I am donating to good causes and using my spending to speak (by buying organic, shopping locally, etc), I'm still participating more than I would like. I went to Wal-Mart to shop yesterday for the first time in a long time and realized that I lost the ability to shop there. The choices overwhelmed me, and I would pick items up and put them down again. The book interested me because I wanted to read books that would enrich my life in some way and perhaps steer me toward a simpler--and better--way of living.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

A List

  • Still not being done with Dubrow's Genre
  • Kitty has fleas (drat)
  • new apartment still a little messy
  • too many projects, not enough time
  • up too late, up too early
  • no run today yet...
  • More books than I can ever read!
Excellent, more good than bad...and none of the bad are too terrible...

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

I'm Smarter Than My Computer

Grammar Check and I are both lovers and enemies. Like Spell Check, Grammar Check is both a useful and debilitating feature on Microsoft programs. Usually I roll my eyes at the suggestions Grammar Check gives me, (and occasionally yell "That's not a frackin' fragment!!), but in the end I feel good because I know things that a computer can never know.

Grammar Check reinforces that language is more complex than even a machine can understand. See, while language has rules that a programmer can use to define language in a system, language also has exceptions to those rules. And a computer has difficulty understanding embedded phrases. So, for example, if I say "Here are the civil engineering summer and fall updated reports", grammar check wants to replace "are" with "is" because logically, the subject of "are" follows directly after, right? And "civil engineering" is singular. However, what the computer doesn't realize is that "reports" (plural) is actually the subject of the verb, thus the verb needs to be plural. But I imagine in order to define such an easy concept (for our language instinct carrying brains) requires impossible programming rules, since it can change on a whim.

That's why Grammar Check and Spell Check have to be used carefully. While they can be useful for catching a misspelled word or an accidental misuse of tense, ultimately computers can only understand the basic logical framework of language. The complexities and twists and turns that we instinctually make as native English speakers is impossible to define for a programmer (though, I hear they are getting closer). When it comes to language and grammar, we are always smarter than our computers (even if we can't always spell properly--but don't forget about those tricky words!)

If you are interested in more about language, I highly recommend Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct. He's a really smart, really easy-to-read guy, and as language has always fascinated me, I adored his book.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

What's in a Name...(THE NAMESAKE)

I once read the chapter "The Circle and the Square" from Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions, where Lame Deer comments on how white people's names have no meaning. Which, while not precisely true, hits on something in American society: naming. We name our children because we like the sound of it or after someone who has meaning in our lives. Rarely do we consider what the name itself means; my name means "fair" or "white" derived from the Welsh Gwenhwyfar/Guinevere, and I know my parents didn't think of that when they named me. They just liked the sound of it.

Although our naming has become aesthetic or a sign of individuality (you've seen the names in the paper), other cultures still put a lot of care and consideration on the naming of their children. The meanings of names and the effects names can have on their bearers is a major theme in Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Namesake. The novel follows the life of Gogol Ganguli, an American boy born to Bengali parents. The novel brings in the cultural gaps between foreign parents and their basically American children. Gogol is named such when the letter containing his name is lost between Calcutta and Boston; his father chooses to name him after Nikolai Gogol, the Russian writer who is significant to him as a sign of life in the midst of death.

Gogol grows up never understanding the significance of his name, and growing to hate it. His parents intended Gogol to be his private pet name and Nikhil to be his public name, but as a young boy, Gogol doesn't understand why he has to switch and the American school system doesn't understand Bengali custom, so Gogol sticks. He switches to Nikhil legally when he begins his freshman year at Yale and hopes to make a leave Gogol behind.

Gogol learns about the origin of his name and begins to feel differently about his namesake, finally reaching an understanding of his family's Bengali heritage, his own name's worth, and learning who Gogol is in the process. The novel closes with him in harmony with his family and his name--one of the best conclusions to a novel. I finished feeling closure and satisfied, as well as walking away with some ideas to think about my own family.

The novel was moving and an intriguing examination of not only the significance of names, but the relationships between parents and children and the culture gap between the two. I had a hard time with Lahiri's style at first--it's spartan and often feels a little choppy--but her ability to spin a story and to describe the world pulls the reader in and keeps her transfixed. By the end of the book, I was entranced, and I think I'll be looking for more of her works.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Weddings and Death

I've been reading a lot of non-fiction lately, written in engaging journalistic styles. Recently, I completed One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding by Rebecca Mead, who writes for The New Yorker.

Mead examines the culture surrounding the modern American wedding, including the concept of "Bridezilla", which she sees as an indicator of how the industry is influencing the way Americans get married. With an average of 25,000 dollars spent on a wedding, those involved in providing the products for the event are part of group that wants to make sure the consumer--brides, especially--feels they need to spend, spend, spend in order to create a successful ceremony (and hopefully a successful marriage). "Bridezilla" is a fabrication of the wedding industry because while she is fearsome to behold (and not entirely an invention), she is their best consumer because she is willing to pay for what she wants. And she wants a lot.

Pointing out the rising divorce rates and uncertainly surrounding marriage, Mead demonstrates how Americans are emphasizing the actual wedding ceremony. Marriage is no longer a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, from virginity to sexual experience (for a growing number, anyway); it is no longer a movement from the parents' home to a home of one's own. For couples who co-habitate before getting married, there may be few differences between being unmarried and marriage. Culturally, weddings have begun to take the place of this ritual transition, with all its perceived traditions (which were actually created by the wedding industry itself).

Mead could have easily taken a sarcastic, condemning tone on some of the gimmicks and blatant consumerism taking place in the weddings she attended researching for her book. And occasionally she points out the almost ridiculous choices people make for their weddings. However, she is often moved in spite of herself; even though she may barely know the bride and groom, she understands that underneath the spending and irrational consuming, there can be true sentiment and drama at a wedding ceremony.

She closes her book by briefly discussing gay marriage and commenting that if heterosexual couples had to fight for the right to be married in the same way homosexual couples do, then perhaps we would think differently about marriage. It was a subtle political commentary, but I thought an effective way to end the book. (In the epilogue, we learn that she got married in the course of writing and researching, and that her own ceremony was small, but what she wanted).

I've been enjoying my non-fiction books. I spotted the title of this one in a New York Times article, and since I know lots of people who are getting married (and I will presumably get married at some point), it sounded interesting. And it turned out to be so--I recommend it, even if you are married already, but are interested in culture and consumer sorts of things.