Saturday, September 22, 2012

Clotaire Rapaille: The Culture Code

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If you haven't figured it out already, themacinator is an intellectual snob. While I pretend to be somewhat of an anti-intellectual, I only do it in the snobby way: I speak my own little version of bad English while knowing grammatical and spelling rules, I "only" have a bachelor's and question the value higher education as in my discussion of "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower," etc, but when it comes down to it, this is all a form of snobbery. I don't watch (much) TV, I never read magazines, and I scorn people (like those Americans I read about today who don't believe humans are the cause of global warming- less than half of us/them!) who don't believe in inconvenient facts. So pop psychology is right up there on things that I'm likely to look down on.

But there's this problem: sometimes it rings true.  Clotaire Rapaille developed a system of cultural "Codes" for everyday things: "the unconscious meaning we apply to any given thing- a car, a type of food, a relationship, even a country- via the culture in which we are raised." "The Culture Code" talks about focus groups he does for various large companies interested in product developing and better marketing, and how he has coded various things- love and sex, home and dinner, money, alcohol, shopping, and America, for Americans. He explains that these "codes" won't work for everyone, of course, but that based on the resulting sales for the companies who use his codes, they're pretty reliable. Rapaille admits toward the end of the book that he basically left his native France because he didn't fit with the French code of French people: "idea." "French children," he writes, "imprint the value of ideas as paramount and refinement of the mind as the highest goals." This has something to do with French philosophers and thinkers. But Rapaille had bigger ideas: he wanted to turn these big ideas into a big company, and French people thought this made him a "megalomaniac," which fit right into the American code for Americans: "dream." So we've got pop psychology that actually sounds pretty accurate, created by someone who left his country because people thought he was off his rocker, or at least out of line.

So where does that leave me? In the case of "The Culture Code," kind of put off. Rapaille spends a lot of time talking about the "reptilian brain." He holds "discovery sessions" with his focus groups that he holds for companies seeking his marketing expertise which access the same feeling that we have right after we wake up after sleeping when we can remember our dreams. In this relaxed state, participants "can access this state and in so doing ... bypass their cortexes to reconnect with their reptilian brains. People regularly report that memories come back to them during these sessions that they had forgotten for years." No footnotes, no citations, no explanation about where this theory comes from or who but Rapaille believes it. It's great and seems to work, but it sounds a little like hocus pocus. In the third hour of his discovery sessions, Rapaille figures out how people across cultures imprint the things he's studying onto their brains. Impressive, if you believe it, and it's tempting. I like the idea that each culture views concepts differently, and agree with it. However, I think there are entire academic fields devoted to this: sociology, anthropology, and even psychology (probably more), that have real research to back it up. Further, it feels tainted to have these well researched phenomena used in the name of selling cars. I know it happens, but my academic snobbery is showing again: Rapaille figures out how Americans sees sex, calls it a "discovery," and uses it to sell us shit. No thanks.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Joyce Carol Oates: On Boxing

Joyce Carol Oates is a prolific writer, a well-known writer, and a writer of epic fiction. "On Boxing" is a tiny little book- an essay on boxing (right?)- an essay with pictures- that defies categorization. It's a look into boxing for a person like me, I think, who knows nothing about the sport, but likes to think about sports in a deeper way, more of a lingering, why we do what we do kind of way. Oates grew up watching boxing with her father and one quickly gets the feeling that she is as deeply immersed in boxing as I am in baseball, only one can't call her a "student of the game," since she doesn't see boxing as a sport. "There is nothing fundamentally playful about it," she writes when discussing how boxing is categorically different from other sports, "nothing that seems to belong to daylight, to pleasure... Boxing is life, and hardly a mere game... One plays football, one doesn't play boxing." Other sports might be a metaphor for life: one might "play out" (my words) life on a field or court, but Oates rules out boxing as "a metaphor for something else." Rather "life is like boxing in many unsettling respects. But boxing is only like boxing." She describes the clinching, the punching, the crowd: this is life mirroring boxing, not the other way around. Even more, boxing is not symbolic, it is what it is.

I've never seen a boxing match. I've seen movies about boxing, though the younger me wouldn't have dreamed of it: gross, gratuitous violence. Now I can watch, because I know in the movies, the violence is fake. Boxers have to overcome one human instinct: to keep fighting even when they can't fight anymore (fight or flight) and chose another, much more primitive: the aggression of smashing someone until they're dead. They must do this to someone who they really have nothing against. And then thousands of people pay to see two people (almost always men) to do this to each other. I opt out, because I don't like violence, but maybe there' something else: "To watch boxing closely, and seriously, is to risk moments of what might be called animal panic- a sense not only that something very ugly is happening but that, by watching it, one is an accomplice." Oates nails it here: there's something about watching men pound each other to possible death, intentionally, that is as ugly as participating. And yet we do it. I opt out, but we do it. And does boxing then become a metaphor for other things- war? capitalism?- or is it still life that mimics boxing?  "The spectacle of human beings fighting each other," she continues
is enormously disturbing because it violates a taboo of our civilization.  Many men and women, however they steel themselves, cannot watch a boxing match because they cannot allow themselves to see what it is they are seeing. One thinks helplessly, This can't be happening, even as, and usually quite routinely, it is happening. In this way boxing as a public spectacle is akin to pornography: in each case the spectator is made a voyeur, distanced, yet presumably intimately involved, in an event that is not supposed to be happening as it is happening. The pornographic "drama," though as fraudulent as professional wrestling, makes a claim for being about something absolutely serious, if not humanly profound: it is not so much about itself as about the violation of a taboo.
I opt out of pornography, as well. By opting out, I also opt out of facing reality: these taboos exist, but I won't violate them. Pornography is theatrical and staged, Oates reminds us, but boxing and the violence is real. Are those who don't opt out somehow facing the reality of violence in a more authentic way, if one follows Oates' logic about life being boxing?

This little book by Oates is a good one. She touches on masculinity and feminism and how race and poverty play into the non-sport, discusses the obvious homoeroticism of boxing. She addresses the fundamental racism in the anti-boxing folks, though I'm not sure I agree with what she comes up with (boxing is a way out for poor people of color). Oates sees a connection between artists and writers and boxers and boxing in a way that is beautiful. She asks big questions: "What is sport?- and why is a man, in sport, not the man he is or is expected to be at other times?" Who do athletes (on the field or in the ring) stand in for? The book operates in and out of the theoretical and the chronological- almost the history of boxing melding in and out with a boxing match itself, following a path that is easy to follow while hard to describe. The accompanying pictures, while dated, are powerful. "On Boxing" is an odd little book, but worth a read for any student of sport, whether you want to call it that or not.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Professor X: In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

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I have a couple of theories about why Professor X chose to write a book about the problems with the American belief in the transformative power of higher education. The first and most obvious is that he is scared of professional repercussions, or of repercussions for the institutions where he works and came up with his theories about the failure of the system. The second theory is that after testing the waters with his article in the Atlantic Monthly, Professor X realized that his ideas were really too out there and that he was not going to win any favors with anyone, and it just might not work to use his name. Then we get into more cynical theories. One: Professor X truly believes in his ideas, but realizes he'll have a bigger splash as an anonymous writer than as a no-name adjunct professor at a no-name third tier school. I mean, who writes a treatise on education anonymously? That's quite a shtick, and it worked- got lots of attention. Two: Professor X found a good editor/PR person first with Atlantic Monthly and then with Penguin who said "you've got a seller here, let's really make it a seller." This is the interlude between ideas one and three. Three: Professor X is done teaching and done worrying about money (relevant if you read the book), and has no name recognition. Professor X is an awesome name. He never has to worry about money again, whether he believes what he wrote or not.

And you know what? I have no idea which of these ideas is true, because Professor X never tells us. In the big scheme of things, it's not a big deal, but as a cynical reader wanting to take in the Very Big Idea that Professor X has to offer, it's hard not to want the little credibility that a name gives. Hey, maybe Professor X has even written another book I'd like to read- he has a great style- but I'm pretty sure I'm not going to find it. And I can't register for any of his classes, either, and he's talked himself up like he's a pretty decent teacher. I'd like to refresh my sentence diagramming skills, and attend his writing workshops- Professor X will not be my man (assuming he's a man).

Okay, all knocking the anonymous thing aside, "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" is a fascinating read with a challenging thesis: not every American needs to go to college. (I used thesis on purpose: Professor X teaches English 101 at various bottom-tier colleges and wants readers to know that very few students know how to find the main argument of a paragraph, let alone structure a paragraph around a main argument.) The Professor's argument is, of course, more nuanced than this and was, of course, written before last night's Democratic Convention, but he was speaking to exactly this type of mentality: "Help give two million workers the chance to learn skills at their community college that will lead directly to a job." Workers don't need college educations to get jobs, Professor argues, and worse, colleges are bad for many workers: they leave the student with debt and inflate job requirements in an unnecessary way. To wit:
American colleges would have us believe that the skills they purport to teach, the critical thinking and higher levels of reasoning and all that, are crucial to competent performance int he workplace. This is baloney, less a line of reasoning than a sales pitch rooted in academic snobbery- a naked appeal to our intellectual insecurities.
 Right in the preface the Professor lets us know where he stands. A college diploma is "a hand stamp that gains one entrance to a nightclub. They point to little more than a willingness to pay college tuition and complete degree requirements."

There's two (at least) sides to this. One is my track: the bachelor's education in the liberal arts at the prestigious institution. It looks good on paper, it sounds good when I say it aloud, and it probably has helped me get jobs. Jobs that have absolutely nothing to do with my fields of choice. It was unfathomable in my socioeconomic sphere growing up that I wouldn't go to one of these colleges. In a way, my life was preparation for college. I learned a lot in college, expanded my education in esoteric subjects and in writing essays and read books that I wouldn't have read and some that I would have and met other smart people. And then went on to a career in animal welfare. I can only think of one job that I did- teaching humane education- that even possibly needed a college degree. I'm not sorry that I have a BA, only acknowledging that I am one of the fortunate few that is not ridden with debt, and that if I were facing debt for the rest of my life, I might have sought something more practical.

The other side is the side that the Professor deals with: students in the "basement of the ivory tower," those striving to get better jobs, or make more money, or maybe catch up on the education they never got. The problem is, many of the students he ends up teaching aren't ready for college. They're done with high school or have their GEDs, but they're still doing high school work, or possibly below. "If you do ninth-grade work in a college classroom," he asks, "does it automatically become college work?" Year after year, he teaches students who not only can't find the thesis, they can't write a complete sentence. If I went to college to learn how to learn, or to learn to be a complete citizen, or some such baloney, what are students at these basement schools learning? The Professor describes aspiring nurses and cops taking required writing classes- they need to know how to write reports and charts. In theory, they also need the more grand goals that I was supposed to learn in my fancy school: intersections of race/gender/class, a stance on cultural relativism, and a love for learning. But the Professor finds that you can't instill this in the person who has never succeeded in school and is with him only for the credits.

Professor X knows what he's saying is controversial, and that no one is going to come out and agree with him, whether they do or not. It's considered snobby, classist, and racist to say that maybe some people should just go to vocational school, or that we're wasting money and causing another debt crisis by trying to send everyone to school. And although he doesn't touch on it, speeches like President Obama's last night touch on the jingoism of sending every American to school: we need to be The Most Educated country in the world if we The Americans are going to succeed. Do your part- go get a diploma! At times, Professor X is very convincing: he describes colleges as a successful business enterprise, which of course they are. "Of course the biggest winners in the game of credential inflation are the colleges themselves," whether they admit it or not. More pressure to go to college means more enrollments. Professor X admits this also means more teaching jobs for him.

He's also convincing in telling the reader just how poorly prepared his students are for college. This is also a pitfall in his argument: if his students really can barely write a sentence, don't they need education as much as I did? More than I did? Did I really need to write a hundred page thesis that no one will ever read? What did that prepare me for? I really do think everyone should be able to write a basic paragraph in their native language. If college isn't the right venue for this, and it probably isn't, then what is? Some sort of continuing education? Adult education? Professor X doesn't really go into this, and that is unfortunate. He also loses a few points by sticking with his program. Even though he says the system is broken, he likes being an adjunct (a system he also says is broken), he likes teaching at these poor institutions with these underprepared students with whom he only makes minor strides. It's hard to know exactly why he does this: where does the good anonymous professor stand? How much does he really believe in what he's arguing for? Not enough to put his money where his mouth is.

Monday, September 03, 2012

What You've Missed (and some testosterone)

I know you've missed it, because just look at these pictures: YOU WEREN'T THERE! (and neither was anyone else.)

August 19th, 2012

August 19th: Announced attendance: 20,130
Actual attendance: 10,000, maybe.

August 20, 2012

August 20th: Announced attendance: 10,274
Actual attendance: 4,000, at most.
August 22, 2012

August 22nd: Announced attendance: 16,557
Actual attendance: 10,000, maybe.

That's how it's been, even with the A's doing some crazy surging, has been pathetically in the attendance field. Yesterday's game, against the (pathetic) Red Sox who always draw a crowd, which was also breast cancer day, was announced at 25,314. I'd guess it was closer to 20,000. But that's ok, those of us that were there got to see this:

That's right, the A's swept the Red Sox. Yes they did. So the Red Sox suck this year. A sweep of the Sox is still a sweep.

Since it was boob day, a day I'd love to miss but always catch, I'll take this opportunity to talk about hormones. So far this year, five players have received suspensions for banned substances- read: steroids. Three of them were on teams I pay attention two: Freddy Galvis of the Phillies, Melky Cabrera of the Giants, and Bartolo Colon of your Oakland Athletics. It started during spring training when the A's signed Manny Ramirez who supposedly retired last year after facing a 100 game suspension for his second positive test. He retired rather than take his lumps, then unretired to take up baseball again. After his suspension was up, he played in the minors, but it didn't really work out (surprisingly). Then came Freddy Galvis, a rookie second baseman for the Phils. The 22 year old is tiny: 5'10 and 154 pounds and was just awesome in the field until he got some crazy fracture in his back. Watching him was really fun. He hit the DL and then popped positive, and denied knowledge of taking the steroids. Honestly, it was hard to believe this guy was taking anything to make himself bigger. He is really really small, and certainly didn't have the puffy Bonds look, or even much muscle to speak of. But the substance he tested positive for, Clostebol, is different: it's good for keeping the body healthy when under stress. It makes the body stronger without a increase of muscle mass. Which explains Galvis's increase in extra-base hits this year.

Then came Marlon Byrd (who cares) and after that, Melky Cabrera. I don't really care about the Giants that much, but they're local, and it was hard to miss all of the hype around "The Melk Man." Hugely popular in San Francisco, winner of the All Star MVP award, Melky actually copped to taking testosterone. Melky did also not have the super bulked up look of the anabolic steroid user. More likely the use of testosterone was helping him "with the regeneration process of...tissues; [and the faster] healing and recovery of injuries." Not bad, right? Then there was a scandal about Melky's lawyers trying to cover it up with a fake website, and then there was a *lot* of sadness from the Giants organization. Or at least a lot of sadness thrown about. Stay tuned...

Finally, the same week as the Melky news, there was Bartolo Colon. Bartolo was certainly having a surprisingly good year for the A's, and may indeed be a large part of their success. He was the oldest guy on the pitching staff, by far, and this is probably the end of his career.  I mean, who would take him after popping for steroids at 39? Stay tuned... Colon has already had one controversial comeback with the Yankees, after a procedure in 2010 done in the Dominican Republic by a doctor reputed to use a banned substance: human growth hormone. The procedure was done for free, supposedly HGH free. Colon did well for the Yankees at the bargain price of 900,000 dollars. Bartolo showed up this year 5'11" and 265 lbs, quickly nicknamed by THB "the fat fuck," and was hardly the kind of guy you'd expect on steroids. When he pitched poorly, we joked that his stem cells wore out. If he was bulked up, you wouldn't be able to tell under all that fat.  Once again, though, the substance was testosterone. Victor Conte of BALCO fame reminds us that testosterone is a fast acting assistant for tissue repair and healing and recovery," just what an old fat dude needs.

So this was all well and good. I watched the game after Melky was suspended. The Giants really looked sad. I believed it. Then, earlier this week, the Giants welcomed back Guillermo Mota. Guillermo Mota was suspended once in 2006 while pitching for the Mets, and again at the beginning of this year, while playing for the Giants. So the Giants, when signing him, knew he had already violated the MLB's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. Okay, they gave the guy a second chance, and he helped them win the 2010 World Series. Can't blame them. But then he popped again, for the second time. He served his 100 game suspension. Right before it was up, Melky was caught. The Giants put on a big show about not knowing and being sad and crushed and devastated, not just because they would lose, but because they Don't Like Cheating. And then Guillermo Mota's suspension was up and he came back and pitched for the very same Giants.

I call bullshit. Just like the teams and MLB knew all the players were on drugs during the anabolic steroid era, this fancy new Program is more bullshit. The teams know, MLB knows, and they don't care. The players are suspended without pay during their suspensions, which means the teams actually gain money when the players are out. Nice, right? Dave Zirin of Edge of Sports called it in "The Nation" five years ago during the Bonds hearings in Congress:
...we could tell the truth: In the case of Baseball Fans vs. the Anabolic Era, everyone is guilty: not just players but all who were part of the assembly line that put the drugs in their veins. That means coaches, managers, trainers, the compliant media, and even the owners. It also means that a certain former Texas Rangers baseball executive now in the White House [in 2007] who did nothing while his players like José Canseco passed around the juice would get asked questions under the hot lights. And if everyone is complicit, then we could offer an unconditional amnesty to everyone from the last decade and move forward with better education, better testing and better vigilance in Major League clubhouses--a vigilance that cares more about the long-term health of players than whether they look like pro wrestlers.
Clearly no one listened to Zirin. Instead, we're still having trials (Clemens's perury trial just ended) at the taxpayers' expense, while baseball ownership is getting richer as players try to get a competitive edge. I'm pretty sure the owners aren't complaining about getting a competitive edge: just like home runs drew fans to the ballpark, winning teams draw fans to the ballpark. The Phillies, until this year, have been a pretty awesome team and had a run of 250+ sellout crowds. The Giants for the last few years are in contention, to packed stands. The A's, well, I don't know what Lew Woolf wants except more money, and I'm sure he doesn't give a rats ass if his players are using steroids.

I'd like to point out one more piece of bullshit: This story where where Yankees' owner Brian Cashman said he "wasn't surprised" about the positive tests. Both Melky and Colon were former Yankees players and are having better years at their new teams than they did for the Yankees. I agree: the spikes in performance are suspicious, and now make sense with the above information about testosterone. But I'm actaully pretty sure that Brian Cashman is not surprised because he knows that a large portion of major league players are using the stuff. Or maybe he's not surprised because he knew they were using when they were on the Yankees.

Last thing, really. Players themacinator wouldn't be surprised to see test positive this year:

Coco Crisp: having the best year at age 32 since he was 25, by far, even with less games played due to bizarre injuries and illnesses. Also wouldn't be surprised if the A's knew (and denied) knowing about it, since they made the bizarre decision to make him the one piece of their team they wouldn't part with this year, rather than the obviously superior Josh Willingham.

Carlos "Chooch" Ruiz: Before going down with a foot injury, Chooch had surpassed most of his offensive totals for any previous year, only in 95 games. Sure, catchers mature late, but this was his 7th year, and at age 33, I'm not sure I buy that. More interesting is that he is arbitration eligible.

Ryan Braun: Okay, I actually don't think he'll test positive this year, but I'm certain he's using. Clearly he was using last year and got out of the suspension through a technicality (which is another reason not to believe that MLB cares), and he's even better this year. Why wouldn't he use again? Not gonna get caught.

In closing, I'd like to leave you with this statement. Apply to whichever performance enhancer you'd like:

"We were extremely disappointed to learn of the suspension of YOUR FAVORITE PLAYER for violating Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Prevention & Treatment Program. We fully support Major League Baseball's policy and its efforts to eliminate performance enhancing drugs from our game.  Per the protocol outline by Major League Baseball's collective bargaining agreement, YOUR FAVORITE TEAM will not comment further on this matter. Wink Wink Nod Nod”