Friday, April 25, 2008

We're Still at Risk

No wonder why so many children have difficulty with word problems: "Study Suggests Math Teachers Scrap Balls and Slices" suggests that real-world math examples undercut the actual mathematics because it's harder to focus when details get in the way. They open with a classic "train problem" of times and schedules that are always ridiculous, the kind of problems that frustrate me and which I inevitably leave blank. Comparing that with the simple equation after it--well, how am I supposed to know what variable fits where? The concept is completely lost in words, but I know how to do the math.

I've always felt that math should stick to numbers, with certain punctuation marks and letters as worthwhile substitutes. Save the stories for English class, it'll just confuse us. I was one of those kids who'd point out logical inconsistencies with the real world even if they had nothing to do with the problem, exactly the type of thing that pisses off both students and teachers alike. Word problems were the scourge of my mathematical existence for most of school. Those train problems always confused the hell out of me, and frankly, I preferred the straight-alone algebraic equations. I also never liked multiple choice questions for math problems, because if I did the problem and was off by a little bit I couldn't possibly pick A or D, thereby getting the entire question wrong, instead of only losing a point or two from some silly error.


The New York Times today published several articles dealing with education, partly because it's been 25 years since the seminal "A Nation at Risk" was released. The politics behind the controversial report are very interesting, as Ronald Reagan only cared about instituting school prayer back and actually wanted to demolish the Department of Education. But Americans reacted to the core message of the report: That the educational system was mediocre and the US would lose its advantage in the world if something wasn't done. Reagan instead abandoned his political agenda and jumped on the bandwagon, and education has been covered by the media and is consistently listed as one of the vital issues facing Americans.

However, as much as our educational system has changed in the last 25 years, new technologies and new fads in other sectors have undermined learning. For one thing, IM and text-message speak--the lol linguistics that make my blood boil--are beginning to seep into schoolwork. This isn't surprising in the least, but it's something that drives me crazy. I understand not typing properly in IMs, and capitalizing "I" in text messages is usually difficult and fruitless. However, there's a difference between "ill" and "i'll", "were" and "we're", "wont" and "won't". That little apostrophe separates two different words with two different meanings. Trying to decipher the message with "intentional" typos is annoying. For the most part, we've been able to adapt, but it's still a glaring sign of laziness. That extra keystroke is not hard; it's automatic for me.

This worries me. Richard Sterling, executive director of the National Writing Project and a professor at the University of Southern California, Berkeley, wants to throw out capitalization too. "When his teenage son asked what the presence of the capital letter added to what the period at the end of the sentence signified, he had no answer," reports the Times. Excuse me? A guy who's in charge of a group that aims to improve the teaching of writing and who grades papers does not know how to answer this question? It's for readability, the ability to visually denote the beginning of one idea (the sentence) from another. Without punctuation, reading would be a headache, as we would never be able to follow a story or an idea without getting confused. Anyone who's read stream-of-conscious works or On the Road understands this.

Of course, texting and IMing aren't considered real writing. If you're sending a quick message about meeting for lunch, it doesn't have to be formal. Trying to relay dialogue or a story over IM is very different from verbally telling the person, and concessions are made. However, emails, blog postings, essays for God's sake, are. They are time-consuming (at least for me), and for many people, they are graded or judged. Don't dumb yourself down for the sake of expidency.

What's also notable in the article--and which I've seen elsewhere--is the statistic that the percentage of black teenagers who write in personal journals (they don't define this term though) is greater than the percentage of whites. I think it's pretty self-explanatory that girls are more likely to do so than boys, but the perception that blogging is more of a certain type of white-hipster thing (as pronounced by the media, natch) isn't true.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Of Course Nobody Cares

Frank Rich hits the nail on the head:

The simple explanation for why we shun the war is that it has gone so badly. But another answer was provided in the hearings by Senator George Voinovich of Ohio, one of the growing number of Republican lawmakers who no longer bothers to hide his exasperation. He put his finger on the collective sense of shame (not to be confused with collective guilt) that has attended America’s Iraq project. “The truth of the matter,” Mr. Voinovich said, is that “we haven’t sacrificed one darn bit in this war, not one. Never been asked to pay for a dime, except for the people that we lost.”

This is how the war planners wanted it, of course. No new taxes, no draft, no photos of coffins, no inconveniences that might compel voters to ask tough questions. This strategy would have worked if the war had been the promised cakewalk. But now it has backfired. A home front that has not been asked to invest directly in a war, that has subcontracted it to a relatively small group of volunteers, can hardly be expected to feel it has a stake in the outcome five stalemated years on.

Why do you think people actually cared about other wars? The only thing my generation has gotten into a tizzy about regarding our current overseas occupations is whether there'd be a draft, and then you'd have every male under 30 running for Canada. I don't know anyone over there, except some vague recollections of people I went to high school with who ended up in the military...but I don't even know if they went to Iraq. Everything regarding this war is inchoate, including media coverage, so how can anyone really follow it without feeling there are personal consequences? Without some sort of personal connection, it's often very hard for people to care.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Single Spin

I don’t quite understand this freemales concept.

So...these women are single. How is this new? The celebrities they cite have dated a few guys since a longterm relationship broke up. They aren’t interested in getting married in the foreseeable future. Sounds like they’re just living their lives. Why is it imperative that Jennifer Aniston suddenly find herself a steady guy just to get hitched?

The term freemales, according to the definition in the Sydney Morning Herald (which, along with their sister publication, is a little too into dating and relationships for a newspaper), isn’t even applicable to the women they name, because they’re dating. Why does it matter whether or not they’re dating, except for the tabloids that need to something to print? Honestly, Rihanna's and Jennifer Aniston’s public image has all been for the better that they aren’t attached–their careers, for one, have skyrocketed! Justin Timberlake would have been bogged down in a marriage to Cameron Diaz (just look how much fodder his breakup with Britney did for him).

Of course, the same tabloids (and sometimes helped by their more-respected peers) continue to lament their single status. They must be lonely and empty, waiting for a man to come home to. As for Tyra, you’re single because you’re a complete loon, not because you’re successful. And Jessica Simpson wants us to believe she really isn’t that stupid.

I’m sick of all these women (Paris Hilton, ugh) exclaiming things like “I don’t need a man, I’m a strong women” yadda yadda yadda. Show, not tell. Nowadays, everyone is a “strong woman”, everyone says they don’t need a man. Yeah, right. Going from man to man and whipping them to do your bidding isn’t a sign of strength, it’s a sign of insecurity and dependence. It’s always the women who proclaim to be independent that really aren’t. (Except for Beyonce. As much as I love her, I credit her and her group for causing a large chunk of this mess. I always hated “Independent Woman”.)

The article tries to make the point that this single thing is a new fad. Come on:

Yet nowadays there's a whole new set of positive buzzwords that are putting solo-femme status on the hot Hollywood map. Quirkyalones, un-marrieds and proud singletons are making a sassy comeback with cocktails in their hands and expensive stilettos on their feet.
This isn’t news. If you’re talking about Sex and the City, that show premiered ten years ago. Quirkyalone came out in 2003. The single-women conversation seems to never end and nothing’s ever really new. You’re unattached or you’re not. There are gray zones, the “it’s complicated”, when relationships are beginning or ending. Of course, none of these markers say things like “I’m in love with my best friend who’s in love with someone else”, “I still have feelings for my ex”, “I’m too immature to be in a relationship”, “I can’t handle clingy people” and the myriad of other hidden reasons behind their singleness.

And that Atlantic Monthly article that Emily blogged about recently is not only going to be made into a movie (oh dear God) but it got her a book contract as well. See what we’re learning here?

Monday, April 7, 2008

NBC Nightly News: Don't Hate the Playa, Hate the Game

I've been watching the NBC Nightly News several times a week for the last few months, and while the broadcast is still underwritten by drug ads--despite the fact that the news regularly debunks health myths and reports on drug errors--there has been a shift in the show’s style. For all of the discussion and criticism surrounding how the evening news is dying, how Katie Couric was brought in to lighten up the news, it turns out that Brian Williams, the perennial ratings winner, has led the way. Howard Kurtz points this out today in his weekly Media Notes column:

The "CBS Evening News" is far more traditional now than when Couric made her much-hyped debut in the fall of 2006, serving up new features and interviews with the likes of Michael J. Fox that ran as long as nine minutes. In fact, the Project for Excellence in Journalism says that last year Couric spent the least amount of time on her signature interviews with outside guests (178 minutes), compared with NBC's Brian Williams (371 minutes) and ABC's Charlie Gibson (308 minutes).

(Sidenote: The Project for Excellence in Journalism is certainly getting a lot of press. It seems it’s quoted in literally every New York Times Business article that runs on Mondays, the day when the paper covers the media industry.)

Brian’s total is much higher than his counterparts, and this is pretty evident for anyone who’s watched the Nightly News recently.

While it's still mostly Brian sitting at a desk, a square graphic to the right of his head, he occasionally swivels his chair to ask a few questions of a guest, usually a reporter or analyst affiliated with MSNBC to give some expert information. For the election, it's usually the giddy Tim Russert, who just can't hold back his excitement no matter who he's talking about. He bops along, waving his hands, grinning from ear to ear--all for a total of ten seconds of airtime. It's endearing.

The Nightly News team recently got a new studio, and to show transparency, whenever Brian is filmed from an angle we can see the woman in the background on the phone, empty desks surrounding her. Clearly she's too busy to notice or care that millions of people are annoyed by her presence. It's cool to get a view of the studio, to see how they work, but my parents, and I suspect similar viewers (since I'm probably one of the youngest out there watching, if ratings are to be believed), find it distracting.

Brian Williams has also begun to editorialize a little bit. Once in a while he'll make a comment about a story. For example, in today's broadcast he was opening a segment on airline travel satisfaction surveys, but he noted they were "more like dissatisfaction". (He had a better one last week, but I couldn't find the clip). He wryly notes that the broadcast allows advertising for the very drugs that are now under investigation for not living up to their claims (Vytorin and Zetica), as well as the fact that every week new health studies break that can justify someone's opinion. (Or as I put it, common sense. Only athletes in training drink 8 glasses of water a day). This is definitely new-school, as is his lighthearted touch. They also now use Google maps, swooping into tiny hamlets from local big cities. It’s pretty cool to see this on a television screen. Today he also cribbed from Bill O'Reilly by putting up viewer email in the graphic corner criticizing Friday's show where John McCain's interview was drowned out by Martin Luther King speeches in Memphis. He even aired complaints that used the clip as an example of liberal media bias. While the tone of the piece suggested that Brian was going to apologize for the gaffe (he did, just in a roundabout way), he didn't re-air the interview, as I expected. Now I realize it's because of time constraints, not the broadcast but of McCain's schedule. Hopefully they'll make it up to him.

The biggest thing that sets the Nightly News apart is the way the program is able to rely upon other NBC content, from MSNBC and CNBC. Analysts from those networks regularly appear, and an MSNBC logo--not an NBC one--is found in the lower lefthand corner rather than the traditional opposite end. As such, the newscast also promotes segments on other NBC property. It's definitely new media convergence--your grandparents' evening news broadcast wouldn't dare go so far as to comment on itself or promote a product. It taints the news! But honestly, now we're used to it. Why wouldn't NBC use its other properties to bolster up the news? The Daily Nightly website (the newscast's blog) is an extension of the property, and even without watching the regular broadcast one can get a sense not just of the news but the environment surrounding the news, and gives viewers an opportunity to talk to Brian and the staff. It's a perfect example of how an "old" media balances its brand while leveraging a "new" media counterpart that augments its content.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Not cool

US News & World Report released their new grad school rankings, and my problem with them is the same as it's been: they aren't inclusive enough. Although they've expanded and updated many listings, including departments for criminology, speech-language pathology, digital librarianship, and other specialized fields, they are again lacking listings for any type of communication-related studies. They're also completely forgetting film and journalism schools. Don't these students deserve to have an idea what the programs out there are like? They do a decent job of exploring different academic niches within subjects like history and psychology, but I'm always so disappointed that advanced degrees for a field that is growing and so varied gets nary a mention. What gives? It's too much? Too lazy? Not enough interest? Did the Internet kill any need for journalism and film school students? Or is it just that there's an overwhelming need for geologists and sculpture MFAs?

(They don't list any meteorology programs either...)