9.21.2008 New York Times Digest

1. “Technology Doesn’t Dumb Us Down. It Frees Our Minds.”

“Paul Saffo, the futurist, says he could divide the technology world into two kinds of people: engineers and natural scientists. He says the world outlook of the engineer is by nature optimistic. Every problem can be solved if you have the right tools and enough time and you pose the correct questions. Other people, who can be just as scientific, see the natural order of the world in terms of entropy, decline and death.”

2. “Fashion Model and Grandmaster, and Now World Champion”

“‘I have never been a professional model; I have had some modeling sessions.’”

3. “A Soap Actor’s Life: As the World Turns, So May a Career”

“Then, in 1995, came the O. J. Simpson trial. During that televised ‘trial of the century,’ which displaced daytime programming for weeks, a significant chunk of the audience vanished and never came back.”

4. “Sitcoms’ Burden: Too Few Taboos”

“It’s hard to think of anything truly mortifying in an age of Viagra commercials, colonoscopies televised live, weight-loss reality shows, presidential primary candidates who admit to adultery and a vice presidential nominee with a pregnant, unwed teenage daughter.”

5. “A Bleak Show for Bleak Times”

“As much as audiences have fed their escapist impulses in recent years, they have also craved narratives of crisis and survivalism — these are bleak times after all — and there is no series on television right now bleaker, gloomier or more reflective of the depth of a certain kind of collective despondence than Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which has returned for its second season.”

6. “Descending Into Blindness to See the Light”

“Most movies dealing with apocalyptic events, especially plagues, get around the inherent bleakness of the human prospect by positing some way out the end-of-the-world impasse, like that cure Mr. Smith finds in the last minutes of I Am Legend, or the boat that turns up at the end of Children of Men to rescue the first child born in the world for 18 years and thus save the human race from extinction. Without hope, what you get is something more like Bergman’s Seventh Seal (1957): plague everywhere, agonizing and incurable, the last faint hope of mankind a chess game with Death (who doesn’t play fair).”

7. “Fuzzy Renaissance”

“Ms. Breier said recent focus groups indicated that some children could not even identify Kermit and Miss Piggy, much less ancillary characters like Fozzie Bear and Gonzo the Great. The wisecracking, irreverent Muppets (a combination of puppets and marionettes) also don’t fit that neatly in the Disney culture, as they differ from most of the company’s bedrock characters in two big ways: Kermit and coterie were primarily created to entertain adults, and they live in the real world. Henson was so insistent that they stand apart from his Sesame Street creations in personality and tone that he (misleadingly) titled the 1975 pilot that would boost their careers ‘The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence.’”

8. “The Best Mind of His Generation”

“He was smarter than anyone else, but also poignantly aware that being smart didn’t necessarily get you very far, and that the most visible manifestations of smartness — wide erudition, mastery of trivia, rhetorical facility, love of argument for its own sake — could leave you feeling empty, baffled and dumb.”

9. “Art of Darkness”

The Dark Knight, with its taciturn and self-pitying vigilante, its scenes of torture, rendition and interrogation, its elaborately leveraged choices between principles and human lives, might offer a defense of the present administration’s cursory regard for human rights abroad and civil rights at home, in the cause of reply to attacks from an irrational and inhuman evil. Poor Batman, forced again and again to violate the ethics that define him, to destroy the world to save it.”

10. “Geek Lessons”

“Why are good teachers strange, uncool, offbeat? Because really good teaching is about not seeing the world the way that everyone else does. Teaching is about being what people are now prone to call ‘counterintuitive’ but to the teacher means simply being honest.”

11. “The Dirty Professor”

“Nobody should attend strip clubs, those purveyors of sexism as entertainment. Strip shows are to gender what minstrel shows are to race.”

12. “Judgment Day”

“For ‘The Doctor Fox Lecture: A Paradigm of Educational Seduction,’ a 1973 article still widely cited by critics of student evaluations, Donald Naftulin, a psychiatrist, and his co-authors asked an actor to give a lecture titled ‘Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education.’ The actor was a splendid speaker, his talk filled with witticisms and charming asides — but also with ‘irrelevant, conflicting and meaningless content.’ Taking questions afterward, the silver-haired actor playing ‘Dr. Myron L. Fox’ affably answered questions using ‘double talk, non sequiturs, neologisms and contradictory statements.’ The talk was given three times: twice to audiences of psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, the last time to graduate students in educational philosophy. In each case, the evaluations by the audience were highly laudatory. To these audiences, Dr. Fox was apparently articulate and intellectual, not a fraud.”

13. “The Thinker”

“Being a philosopher requires you to engage in the practice of relentless inquiry about everything, so it’s not surprising that Jolley has spent untold hours puzzling over how to best teach the discipline itself. What he has decided is that philosophy can’t be taught — or learned — like other academic subjects. To begin with, it takes longer. ‘Plato said that you become a philosopher by spending “much time” in sympathy with other philosophers,’ he told me. ‘Much time. I take that very seriously.’”

14. “Those Who Write, Teach”

“Young writers think all they need is time, but give them that time and watch them implode. After all, there’s something basically insane about sitting at a desk and talking to yourself all day, and there’s a reason that writers are second only to medical students in instances of hypochondria. In isolation, our minds turn on us pretty quickly. I have two writer friends, successful novelists who could afford not to teach, who insist that rather than detract from their writing, their lives as professors are what allow them to write, and that given more free time, they would crumble.”

15. “Case Study”

“Obama’s rootedness in the real world shaped every aspect of his teaching. He laced his lectures with basketball analogies. When a student observed the death of Jam Master Jay of the hip-hop group Run-DMC by wearing the group’s trademark tracksuit to the racism seminar, Obama acknowledged the gesture with a nod and a smile. (‘I can assure you, that would not have been a common response among the faculty at the University of Chicago,’ Joshua Pemstein told me…).”

16. “The Camera-Friendly, Perfectly Pixelated, Easily Downloadable Celebrity Academic”

“Now a charisma-sensei — lucid, affable, groomed for The Charlie Rose Show — is all but a tenure shoo-in, an asset no blue-chip university can be without. On TV or billboarded on the Barnes & Noble front table, the charisma-sensei is an emissary for the relevance and exuberance of the brand, be it Harvard, Yale or Chaucer. Best of all, his online lectures now might go viral, playing around the world — beyond the reach even of Charlie Rose! — alongside clips of the Chinese Olympian Qiu Jian or the Lebanese singer Fairuz in concert. What better way to prove an institution’s embrace of globalism, new technology and populist models of information dissemination?”

2 responses to “9.21.2008 New York Times Digest

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