Dear God, Thank You for Billboards

Americans are good at buying stuff. Inseparably, Americans are good at selling stuff. Billboards, flyers, cold calls, even dirigibles and airplanes dragging messages over the coastline: if it persuades a consumer, we’ve got it. Poor, victimized consumers.

As a citizen of Los Angeles, I’m accustomed to being visually accosted by aggressive and often repulsive billboard advertisements. What else is one to look at: the concrete barriers and dilapidated warehouses walling in the freeway?

Countless times have I lamented, or at least whined, to friends and family about the autonomy violation named advertisement. Inherently deceptive, purposefully manipulative and aesthetically nauseating, I complain. They make people want what they can’t have, such as a computer-generated hot bod, and ‘need’ what they can’t afford, like a device with a name like ‘Fab Ab Belt’ that will supposedly spit out the hot bod during Saturday breakfast.

The ads make…? people want. Well, maybe that’s a hasty conclusion.

Since the beginning of July, I have been in various parts of England, traveling and studying. The English, at least at first, seem abysmal at selling things in comparison to the rabid LA market. I could count on one hand how many billboards I’ve seen, and those only in London, not the highways. No blimps to speak of.

No wonder, thought I, that Brits seem less materialistic than us Southern Californians and, in general, metro-Americans. No wonder women wear less makeup, cars are economical and TV shows have more ‘wit’ and less ‘glam’. By hook or crook, they’ve managed to escape our demons of consumer hooks and business crooks! Envy.

Of course, I exaggerate. England has advertisements too, but they are usually subtle. TV ads might have story lines that carry on for years, and the product usually takes a backseat to a joke or interesting interchange. Ads targeting personal appearance insecurities are remarkably infrequent, an alien concept to LA. Ads, in general, are remarkably infrequent, an even more alien concept to LA.

So then, we’ve been doomed and the English are saved. ‘The man’ creates advertisements, and ‘the man’ decided he liked the California climate.

Or maybe it doesn’t work that way. Maybe California decided it like ‘the man’.

Does that imply that SoCalians are naturally lacking some economic integrity to resist ‘billboard culture’ that the English possess?

It doesn’t seem so. We’re just more, well, capitalist, and I’m pretty sure that’s yet to be conclusively determined a vice, no matter what Jerry Brown might imply.

Advertisement research specialist Barbara Phillips, by going back to the seminal period of western advertisement, the Industrial Revolution, demonstrates the relationship between capitalism and ads:

Consumers did not know how goods were made, nor by whom, nor for what purpose. At the same time, individuals had less time to spend seeking information about the increasingly complex goods in the market. Consequently, consumers had a difficult time assigning social meanings to goods. They were unsure what the goods they bought “said” about them… The sweeping social changes described above left individuals clamoring for a source of social guidance, and advertisers were happy to step into the void.

Industrialization, while it certainly came to England, met the greatest success in America, and thrived in Los Angeles. The family and traditional institutions that people previously relied on for guidance fell away in the face of nomadic industrial workers and fading religious and community structures. The result? According to Phillips, “advertising began to take on a social guidance function… Consumers could turn to advertising for desperately-needed information that could help them reduce their anxiety in a complex and confusing world.”

In other words, when we don’t know what we want, we at least want someone to tell us what we want.

Living in England, in that regard, is enormously refreshing. I’m not being constantly told what I want, what I ‘should’ look like and what I ‘need’ to survive in the 21st century. Compared to LA, consumers are more creators of their desires, and less constructions of them.
Nevertheless, when I get back to the City of Angels come December, I’m going to look hard at those advertisements instead of mentally trying to gouge out my eyes. If every billboard is information about what the people around me want (for a few weeks, anyways), then every commercial can open a conversation examining the hidden premises of an marketing-driven society.

Every advertisement and every blinking billboard is a shared text, for better or worse. Each one begs the questions, “What are we missing?” and “What have we left behind?” Maybe it’s time we started talking about billboards and perhaps even attempt to answer their questions.

Don’t Knock My Fictional Feelings!

The old man had been on the sea for days; the marlin pulled his small boat hour after hour. My mouth was dry, nearly salty. I felt the weight of isolation–the weight of being on a vast ocean that is void of another human form. Ernest Hemmingway tossed me into the skiff and sent it to sea.

Fiction has the power to do this—to create experiences that evoke real emotional responses. Story, though understood by its reader to be non-reality, has the power to spark emotions that are otherwise reserved for real events, even though the reader understands they are only real in his imagination. In philosophy of literature, this is called the ‘paradox of fiction’: we react to acknowledged non-reality as through reality.

Why should we care? Well, for one, when an educator or parent must make decisions of censorship or filtering media, this question is pivotal. If ‘fictive experiences’ are derivative from our prior experiences in ‘reality’, then handing A Clockwork Orange to a 10-year-old shouldn’t harm them too much. But if fiction, when experienced as though it is real, has the power to actually create new experiences and understanding, the stakes rise exponentially.

Some philosophers have taken a position somewhere in-between. Kendall Walton, author of Mimesis as Make-Believe, takes a philosophical look into the purpose and effect of representational art, including literary fiction. Walton’s work was recommended to me by a professor, but though it was an intriguing read, I was incredulous concerning Walton’s explanation of fiction.

Response to fiction relies on the reader/viewer’s active participation, he said.  Walton compares fiction to games of make-believe, and concludes that we intentionally suspend judgments of ‘reality’ so that we can fully experience representational art.

But I did not think Walton’s theory was intuitively true. While watching a horror film, I’ve found solace in reminding myself that is it ‘not real’; I did not first enter into the film’s world by actively setting aside its ‘non-reality’.

Not that Walton is wrong, per se. I just don’t think he’s finished answering the question. Make-believe can account for some fiction-inspired experience, but not all. Sure, the imagination is powerful, but an author who can write a subtle, sublime piece of fiction seems able to subsume a reader into the images, rather than vice versa.

Danièle Moyal-Sharrock, in her article “The Fiction of Paradox: Really Feeling for Anna Karenina,” offers a compelling response to Walton’s theory:

Literary characters and situations prompt real, full-fledged emotions that often have prolonged, even life-long, impact. Indeed, so real was the fear that Hitchcock’s The Birds spurred in me when I watched it at the age of nine that I know it to be responsible for my still-existent ornithophobia. And what of the emotions provoked by Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) which caused so many young men at the end of the eighteenth century to commit suicide? Can we call these ‘make-believe’? …our ordinary responses to fictional characters are genuine responses.

We don’t react to fiction in spite of its being fiction, she says, but because it is fiction. For example, Tolstoy’s deliberate and subtle description of Anna Karenina and her demise probably creates a stronger emotional reaction than if we read of a ‘real-life’ suicide in the newspaper.

In other words, fiction sometimes gives us more real experiences than real events. Dr. Moyal-Sharrock, citing Aristotle, argues that fiction is formative and educational. It ‘enhances our understanding’ of the world and what it means to be human. In that, even the darkest tragedy can be pleasurable: humans are designed to seek knowledge and understanding apart from utilitarian usability or two-dimensional rosiness.

I believe most educators are not adequately aware of how powerful fiction is, both in terms of responsibility and possibility. When a piece of literature is assigned, a teacher should think about what experiences the student (or child) is likely to encounter and be ready to discuss them. I did not learn of grief when someone I knew died; I learned of it when Rab stood firm at Lexington, taking a fatal bullet at the end of Johnny Tremain (Esther Forbes).

The nature of fiction inspired experience is an inexplicable mystery. Philosophy of literature, when poorly done, tries to circumvent mystery with ad hoc categories. Done well, as in Moyal-Sharrock’s article, it focuses instead on how experiencing fiction teaches us about being human. In light of that, of course, we should also know what a piece of fiction teaches. As any lover of literature can tell you, fiction may be fictive, but its lessons are real—and sometimes, all-too-real.

33 Things: The Week’s Amusing & Intriguing Links

Dustin Steeve

1. Ben Stein wonders what law gives President Obama the authority to “kick ass” and demand $20 billion from BP?   “The BP behavior is reminiscent of how, immediately after assuming office, Mr. Obama, with no Congressional authority or administrative allowance, simply made a phone call to fire the head of GM. When I called the White House press office to ask under what law or regulation Mr. Obama was acting, I was told he did not need a law. If the government put a lot of money into GM, it could call the shots at GM, I was told. But under what authority, I asked. “None needed,” was the final answer.

Without any new legislation, President Obama has used returned TARP money as a political slush fund to prop up favorite industries. This is the same problem: serious executive action without legislative authority.”

2. Before the age of Wikis, editorial wisdom and oversight determined exactly which leaks would be published.  Now, any fool with an agenda and total lack of foresight can leak classified information to the whole world.  Case in point, Spc. Manning:

“Government officials say many of the confidential documents describe the workings of Arab governments and their leaders. Wired magazine quoted Spc. Manning as saying, ‘Hillary Clinton and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available.’”

3. Biblical Armageddon to be taught alongside Global Warming in the classroom:

Christian Groups: Biblical Armageddon Must Be Taught Alongside Global Warming

4. EvangelicalOutpost friend and comedian Scott Ott’s new book “Laughing at Obama: Volume 1” is now available:

“Be among the first in your office, neighborhood, or environmentally-sensitive transit pool to read this first-draft of the history of our 44th president…an edition destined to be bronzed and placed in the atrium of the Obama Presidential Library (either in Detroit, Guantanamo Bay or Crawford, Texas).”

5. Obama controlled coast guard stops barges sucking up oil in the golf because they were uncertain whether the ships came equipped with fire extinguishers: “It’s the most frustrating thing,” the Republican governor said today in Buras, La. “Literally, yesterday morning we found out that they were halting all of these barges… These barges work. You’ve seen them work. You’ve seen them suck oil out of the water.”

6. Farmville is now coming to the iPhone.  Don’t lie, we know you’re excited.

7. Misguided compassion hurts the poor.

8. A Christian definition of Technology:

“We can define technology as a distinct human cultural activity in which human beings exercise freedom and responsibility in response to God by forming and transforming the natural creation, with the aid of tools and procedures, for practical ends and purposes. (Monsma, Stephen V. (ed.) Responsible Technology, 1986, p. 19)”

Rachel Motte

9. Funny, Andrew looks exactly like I’d always pictured him.

10. How Pain Works

11. The truth is worse than you think–but Christ is more beautiful than you can imagine:

The ugly truth is that the fall still applies and the fall means that the Christian path is a cross bearing path – if you are a Christian expect that life will be harder than you initially imagined it would

12. Reusable cover art in historical novels: a gallery (HT: The History of the (Whole) World )

13. Richard Viguerie, beware:

Why is it, in this world of nearly instantaneous, targeted, scalable communications, that we still rely on direct mail fundraising? When does the 140-character tweet, the Facebook status update, or even the 30-second YouTube video replace a clunky, 5-page typed fundraising ask – double-spaced in 12 pt. Courier New font – and on pink stationary, no less? Does it ever?

Amy Cannon

14. The particular difficulties of a composer’s biopic.

15. If the way we raise our kids has little or no influence on how they turn out…let’s have more!

16. This American Life’s Ira Glass on the importance of being wrong for telling stories.

17. Young women’s Christian fiction is being touted as feminist.

Joi Weaver

18. This Is How Your Drink Looks Under The Microscope

19. International Relations Theory and Zombies

20. Sir Thomas More, Patron Saint of Sci-Fi Writers and Dinosaurs

21. Atheists Don’t Have No Songs

22. You’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat: 10-ft Great White Shark bitten almost in half…by 20-ft Shark

Julia Kiewit

23. Bill Gates on what makes a significant life

24. Utilitarian Bioethicists Don’t See How Denying Human Exceptionalism Leads to Tyranical Tendencies

25. Dutch Euthanasia Growing Rapidly

Peter Gross

26. Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell in corrspondence!  Out loud!

27. Photomicography.  Be still, my heart.

28. The London skyline is about to look a whole lot different.

29. Don’t you wish, deeply, that the Verizon logo looked like this?  I do.  Pretty please?

Robin Dembroff

30. A poignant picture from Chris Brogan.

31. A new way to look at art.

32. Liked Slaughterhouse Five? Then you might like Kurt Vonnegut’s letter describing the experiences behind the novel.

33. Probably not the best model for salary negotiation. ‘

33 Things: The Week’s Amusing & Intriguing Links

Have at it.

Peter Gross

1. The Artist is Present. You go into a modern art museum, right?  Main exhibition room.  OK.  Main exhibition: the artist herself, sitting in a chair, waiting to stare right back into your eyes.  Here’s a slideshow of the people who sat with her.  If nothing else (though I think it’s likely quite a bit more), it’s an intriguing set of portraits.

2. The Poet Laureate reads her poems.  They’re short and very sweet.

3. AOL (formerly American Online) just rebranded (hence the name change) to both thunderous applause and murderous objections in the design community.  See if you can figure out why.  One of the things that has come of it, however, is a broad-ranging new corporate sponsorship of art.  Here’s a site with some of the pieces made for the newest iterations of the Aol. identity(?)

Rachel Motte

4. Curious George and the iPad

5.

6. A working Lego printer that would make even McGuyver proud

7. She hadn’t counted on him taking the “Trophy Wife” thing this far.

8. You too can sleep in a pew without censure

9.

10. And you thought the World Cup was exciting:

Renee Bolinger

11. Recently, a teen attempting to circumnavigate the globe was foiled by rough seas and had to call for help.  Curious what goes on in the minds of kids who wish they could sail across the world alone, in a tiny boat?  Read Abby Sunderland’s blog.

12. How do you know when the education system is failing?  When the teachers cheat on the kids’ tests.

13. Lost in all the bustle over the oil spill, Iran is happily moving forward to develop nuclear technology.  The international response?  Oh, let’s try beating a dead horse: put more partial sanctions on the country. The Council on Foreign Relations assesses the likely failure of the brilliant plan.
14. In his first address from the Oval Office, President Obama used strong, martial rhetoric to indicate his determination to win the war against the oil spill… but it’s a bit unclear exactly how.
15. There are lots of crazy competitions, most demanding some act of skill or courage or prowess.  For robots, these competitions are bit more subtle: check out the handshake competition.

Julia Kiewett

16. Rule of Law, or Politics?

17. Colorado man on solo mission to kill Bin Laden

18. What’s Wrong with America’s Right?….from the perspective of The Economist

Joi Weaver

19. Missing Camera Found, With Video Taken By Sea Turtle

20. The Australian Angel

21. The Infinity Cocktail Table Will Make Your Brain Hurt

22. “Sometimes It’s Just Hard”

23. Ebert on Twitter

Amy Cannon

24. The importance of Psycho‘s iconic soundtrack to the movie.

25. I bet fire was a big deal, too, when that was invented….

26. By divine judgment, cosmic justice, or freak accident, “Touchdown Jesus” is gone. And turns out to have been highly flammable

Robin Dembroff

27. The T.W.I.N.K.I.E.S. Project

Lindsay Stallones

28. Publishers have been gouging educational institutions for years. Now it looks like the UCs are biting back.

29. What will you be doing in December?  I’ll be watching this.

30. Why should you get up at 4am to watch a World Cup match?  Torrey’s own Allen Yeh explains.

Jennifer Gaertner

31. Sperm-Donor Children More Likely to Suffer from Depression

32. Why Black Licorice is AWESOME.

33. In Praise of Tough Criticism

An Open Letter to Contemporary Christian Music

Dear Contemporary Christian Music,

I wouldn’t be writing this letter if I hadn’t heard you were feeling a bit better. After all, you have been off-color the last hundred years or so.

I’d like to make sure you know that I’m sorry you haven’t been well. I’ve said harsh words, but, truly, I don’t revel in your illness. I was glad to hear news that you may be starting pulling through—I’ve been losing hope. The end of this dangerous and infectious illness is long overdue.

You were so vital during childhood. Like any kid, you imitated your parent—chanted her chants, sang her Psalms. In general, though, you managed to reinterpret those established traditions and make them refreshing. Your work was fit for worship, being not only true, but also beautiful.

That remained accurate as you got older, even when you were given new tools and opportunities. When you got an organ, you weren’t sure at first how to use it. You made some awful screeches come out of it. Eventually, though, you got the hang of it and produced some great pieces. People today still play them, in fact. And all the work you did later with full orchestras and symphonies—we definitely play those. But we call those by the name you went by at the time, ‘Music’, not your new, self-given title, ‘Christian Music’.

I really admire that, until recently, you didn’t feel the need for that adjective. You called yourself ‘Music’ and worked hard at living up to the name. You made contemporary music, and made it well; that was enough.

But, of course, that was before the world severed itself from history, and you fell into the the same illness—the deep, itching illness of insecurity and fear. You seemed to think it acceptable to scorn your inheritance: you called it ‘cultic’ or ‘formulaic’, ‘boring’ or ‘dull’. Ironically, you called it all the things you were about to become.

The 20th-century hasn’t been kind to you; I get that. You said that you only wanted to help people who hated you–who wanted nothing to do with you if you identified with your history. I did (and still do!) admire your motives. But you were foolish to think you could ever actually deny your roots, even if we pretend that it would be right to do so.

The new plan—a sort of evangelical bait and switch—was dangerous, as shown by the results. You worked so hard to write sermons into your songs that you forgot they were songs. The ‘bait and switch’ had no ‘bait’. Pardon the pun, but for the last century or so, you’ve been singing to the choir, embarrassing a good number of them with your bad pitch and worse instrumentation.

Instead of playing a strong part in secular music, you became a shadow of it and called yourself ‘Christian’ music. Simultaneously, you burned the bridges behind by claiming emancipation from the history you would need to find an identity apart from this shadow.

Christian lyrics—sure, you have those. Didactic ones, usually. But Christian music? Beautiful music is Christian music, and you’ve stopped making that for a regrettably long period of time.

But I hear good things recently, even amid the awful things. I hear that you’ve sent some talent into the world, despite the radio stations that refuse to play anything but a two-dimensional status quo. [As always, they continue to expect different results from playing the same song over and over again simply because they give it a hundred different titles.]

I hope the good things thrive and expand. Once you’re well, we’ll hear some beautiful music played to the Lord. Until then, though, get some rest, read the latest Rolling Stone magazine and take an online music theory class. No one ever said beauty was easy, only that it was simple. But, as the Fire Theft reminds us in their sublime piece titled “Heaven”, “it’s the simple things that are so hard to grasp.

All the Best,

Because it’s too Hot for Heavy Reading

In our Summer Reading Symposium, I recommended three books for summer reading. I love these books too much to leave it at a mere ‘name dropping’. Let me try to convince you, using the opening line, my thoughts and an excerpt from each, that the three books I mentioned are really and truly worth your time this summer.
1. There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always.


The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

There is a people-pleasing, ego-centric bug named Humbug. A watchdog named Tock with a complex because his watch-body goes “tick.” Dictionopolis, where words grow on trees, since we all know money won’t. Alex, a boy who is growing down, instead of growing up, (his feet might still be dangling, poor kid). The Terrible Dyne, who can’t stand anything harmonic. And a boy named Milo, whose existential crisis sends him in fantastic lands where he meets all of these characters, and a whole lot more.

Juster fills every page with word plays, imagination, poignancy and all-around incredible wit. A light and fun read, especially if you can read it to someone out-loud.

Excerpt:

“Pardon me,” said Milo to the first man who happened by; “can you tell me where I am?”

“To be sure,” said Canby; “you’re on the Island of Conclusions. Make yourself at home. You’re apt to be here for some time.”
“But how did we get here?” asked Milo, who was still a bit puzzled by being there at all.
“You jumped, of course,” explained Canby. “That’s the way most everyone gets here. It’s really quite simple: every time you decide something without having a good reason, you jump to Conclusions whether you like it or not. It’s such an easy trip to make that I’ve been here hundreds of times.”
“But this is such an unpleasant-looking place,” Milo remarked.
“Yes, that’s true,” admitted Canby; “it does look much better from a distance.”

As he spoke, at least eight or nine more people sailed onto the island from every direction possible.

“Well, I’m going to jump right back,” announced the Humbug, who took two or three practice bends, leaped as far as he could, and landed in a heap two feet away.

“That won’t do at all,” scolded Canby, helping him to his feet. “You can never jump away from Conclusions. Getting back is not so easy. That’s why we’re so terribly crowded here.”

2. Papa is in his easy chair, reading the Sunday sports page.


The Brothers K by James Duncan

645 pages—right. I have time to read that…  well, I made time. Or, more, Duncan’s  book made me make time—I couldn’t put it  down. Why have more people not read or  heard of this book? It is a largely  unrecognized gem of 20th American l  literature that, categories aside, might just  give Doestoevsky a run for his money.  Duncan’s intricate story takes the reader  into the world of a family of eight: an  aloof, baseball-playing father, the intense,  religious mother, and four brothers and  two twin girls.

From Indian trains, to Vietnam, to a  backyard makeshift bullpen, Duncan seamlessly carries the reader through people and places, emotions and theories. In a single page, I would hit sections where I verged on tears and then, farther down, burst into laughter. Even though he switches through a variety of narrators, Duncan always maintains both consistency and creativity in tone. The book is honest—sometimes painfully so—but also gracious, convicting and entrancing. In both content and length, definitely an epic.

Excerpt:
“Mama is a Seventh Day Adventist. She doesn’t make Papa go to church because she can’t figure out how to, and she doesn’t make Irwin to because he loves church and would go no matter what. But Everett, Peter, the twins and me she makes go every Sabbath unless we’re sick. And today is Sabbath. And I’m not sick. And the sun is already so hot outside that everything all bleached and wobbly-looking, as if the whole world was just an overexposed home movie God was showing Jesus up on the livingroom wall. And whenever it’s really hot, Elder Babcock’s sermon—even if it starts out being about some nice quiet thing like the poor or meek or weak—will sooner or later twist like a snake with its head run over to the unquiet subject of heaven and hell, and who all is going to which, and how long you’ll have to stay, and what all will happen to you when you get there, and he goes on so loud and long and the air gets so used up and awful that bit by bit you lose track of any difference between his heaven and his hell and would gladly pick either over church.”

3. I don’t know whether my life has been a success or a failure.


Harpo Speaks by Harpo Marx and Rowland Barber

In every Marx Brothers act & film, Harpo never says a word. But he has a lot to say—nearly 500 pages worth, in fact. But I never would have guessed that like The Brothers K, I could not put down Harpo Speaks. Harpo takes the reader through through his childhood home, Brooklyn’s Jewish ghetto, through life on the road, Hollywood, vaudeville stages and celebrity mansions and private islands. Harpo is an entertainer, and that remains true in his writing. The book is filled with hilarious stories, bizarre people and the behind-the-scenes lives of the Marx brothers.

For example, Harpo tells the story of when his parents wanted to get Chico (one of his brothers) piano lessons in New York. The cheapest teacher was a lady who only knew how to play with her right hand—so Chico was formally taught only how to play right hand. Watch him play closely in the films, and you’ll notice that his left hand tends to only play basic chords and rhythm, while his right hand spins insanely across the ivories.

…or the story of how Harpo was—literally—thrown out of his elementary school window by Italian bullies, and never again returned to formal education.

Snappy writing, fascinating characters, quirky stories and one heck of a man. Even if you don’t get around to it this summer, Harpo Speaks  is a must read, especially for any fan of the Marx Brothers.

Excerpt:
“I was looking forward to a solid weekend of practice, without interruptions, when my new neighbor started to bang away. I couldn’t hear anything below a forte on the harp. There were no signs the piano banging was going to stop. It only got more overpowering…

I went to the office to register a complaint. One of us had to go, I said, and it wasn’t going to be me because I was there first. But the management didn’t see it my way. The new guest, whose playing was driving me nuts, was Sergei Rachmaninoff. They were not about to ask him to move.

I was flattered to have such a distinguished neighbor, but I still had to practice. So I got rid of him my own way.

I opened the door and all the windows in my place and began to play the first four bars of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor, over and over, fortissimo. Two hours later my fingers were getting numb. But I didn’t let up, not until I heard a thunderous crash of notes from across the way, like the keyboard had been attacked with a pair of sledge hammers. Then there was silence.”

Move these three books to the top of your queue–you won’t regret it. They are the epitome of summer reading. All you need is some iced tea, a lounge chair and big sunglasses. Or, if you live in Seattle, coffee and an umbrella. If you have extra time, check out what my colleagues recommended too (but :coughminearethebestcough:).

33 Things: The Week’s Amusing & Intriguing Links

A special, contributor-specific version of 33 Things.

We won’t mention and/or castigate the contributors that forgot to get their links in on time. :coughHaydenButlercough:

Julia Kiewitt

1. “The New Philistinism”

2. “The Birds and the Bees (via the Fertility Clinic)”

3. “Should This Be the Last Generation?”

4. “The University Guild vs. Glenn Beck”

Amy Cannon

5. Yet another indicator that George Orwell’s “1984” was just a few decades early: the sticky ethical territory of rewriting memories.

6. Humility helps business.

7. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies…and Pictures!

8. Jesus, meet Jesus, because I really want you both to meet…Jesus

Joi Weaver

9. Stories Behind the Sideshow: You’ve heard of The Elephant Man, but do you know the story of Joseph Carey Merrick, or any other sideshow performer? Read their stories: they will amaze you.

10. It’s Time to Talk About the Burgers and the Bees

11. Life Advice From Old People

12. A wombat. A dead god. A very peculiar epic.

Jennifer Gaertner

13. “Homer! Buffy! Jack Bauer!” In Honor of Iconic TV Charachters

14. A Basic Rule for Spending Money from Seth Godin

15. The Future of the Internet

Rachel Motte

16. Israel, Trapped in Plato’s Cave:
Sometimes it is the duty of responsible people to reject the shadows in favor of reality. And in the case of Israel — not always, but often enough — the reality is this: it is being condemned not because of its actions; it is being condemned because of its very existence, because of its very nature, and yes, because of its Jewishness. The objections against Israel are not specific to this or that act; they are existential.

17. French Archaeologists Dig up 1983 Picnic Remains

18. Subtle eye-makeup from the tasteful, restrained era history calls “The 70s.”

19. This 8-month-old baby is hearing sound for the very first time:

20.  Am I still under oath?  What about the right to remain silent – do I still have th

Dustin Steeve

21. Dr. Trevor Hart – professor at St. Andrews in Scotland – shares the gospel.

22. The dark side arises for phone apps:

“In one incident, Google pulled dozens of unauthorized mobile-banking apps from its Android Market in December. The apps, priced at $1.50, were made by a developer named “09Droid” and claimed to offer access to accounts at many of the world’s banks. Google said it pulled the apps because they violated its trademark policy.

The apps were more useless than malicious, but could have been updated to capture customers’ banking credentials, said John Hering, chief executive of Lookout, a mobile security provider. “It is becoming easier for the bad guys to use the app stores,” Mr. Hering said.”

23. Steve Jobs WWDC keynote talk (where he reveals the iPhone 4) in 90 seconds:

Renee Bolinger

24. Something is better than nothing, but i have spent very little time at the computer or reading or anything this week. Here’s what i’ve come across:

25. Working on a presentation?  Wondering whether to use the font ‘comic sans’? Here’s your answer.

26. Improv everywhere pranks New Yorkers…. again.  This time, by offering what they’ve always wanted: a tourist lane.

27. Some of the most terrifying playgrounds… ever.

28. String theory… It’s actually just a maze made out of yarn.  You could solve this dilemma with a sword, or scissors.

29. Does the internet actually make us shallow human beings?  Science gets into the debate: looks like our brains might be changing.

Robin Dembroff

30. Try your hand at editing a documentary on a sensitive topic. Good luck, and try not to make anyone hate you.

32. Hype Machine is a mp3 aggregator that draws from indie music blogs. Find the song that you heard once in passing, and never forgot. Or, find the better song that came up on Hype Machine instead after you put the title in wrong about ten times. Not that I’ve ever done that or anything.

33. How to craft/create a joke. Of course, I was only attracted to this link because I’m so awful at writing jokes. But we don’t need to talk about that. ‘

A Sack of Spin

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A recent article by Kevin Sack concerns pre-abortion ultrasounds, and whether they might or might-not affect a woman’s decision. But he wrote another article simultaneously–one about how only cold, cruel extremists insist that clinics provide ultrasounds.

Impressive. Sack’s article is composed of subtle, well-crafted infusion of bias, all neatly packaged into what I would think appears to most people as a typical, passably-objective piece of journalism.

But take a closer look at the article. Sack uses rhetorical devices to maintain a dual agenda throughout his article—one on a literal, journalistic level, and another on a persuasive, op-ed level. A careful read can reveal the devices Sack employs. After all, it’s one thing for someone to be a bad writer; but it’s a whole other, and more dangerous thing to be a bad reader.

1. Euphemism, or ‘Positive Expression’, and Dysphemisms, or ‘Sneaky Smack’

A euphemism isn’t always bad. I’m glad we say, ‘I’m going to use the restroom’ instead of a more graphic description of that room’s goings-on. All the same, in an article like Mr. Sack’s, euphemisms are used as a powerful form of rhetorical manipulation.

Here are a few examples:

‘abortion method’? Nope: “method of extraction
‘Young (or small) fetus’? Uh, no: “bean-size fetus”
‘Abortion Supporters’?  Nah: “Abortion rights advocates”

These are some fairly obvious examples of how words can be crafted with that ‘dual agenda’ I mentioned earlier. On a factual level, both ways of speaking—the ‘moderate’ and ‘euphemized’—convey the same information. But the euphemisms motivate substantially different responses by softening and/or abstracting language.

Dysphemisms are the opposite of euphemisms, and Sack’s article is loaded with these as well. Dysphemisms employ words to make something sound a lot worse than it is.

For example, Sack does not say that anti-abortion supporters hope sonograms will convince women to ‘carry their babies to term’ or ‘not have an abortion’. Instead, they are trying to get them to “preserve pregnancies.” As if abortion were so natural that a woman must make extra effort to ‘preserve’ her pregnancy…?

Some dysphemisms verge on also being ad hominem. Sack calls ultrasound advocates ‘anti-abortion strategists’. ‘Strategists’—brilliant choice. Consider the dictionary definition: “a person skilled in planning action or policy, esp. in war or politics.” With a single word, Sack throws the anti-abortion side into freezing cold category connotations of war and politics, perhaps the two worst human inventions in all history.

My favorite dysphemism, though, was when Sack was still talking about the woman ‘Laura’, and why she did not want to look at the ultrasound images. The image, Sack writes, “would only unleash…hormonal emotions.”  Oh, Mr. Sack, don’t you mean they would ‘activate maternal instinct’?

Another tip: also look for overarching euphemisms/dysphemisms. Sack maintains a subtle consistency in his references to pro-abortion and anti-abortion supporters. Pro-abortion supporters are ‘who’s’: they are personified groups or individuals. Anti-abortion, on the other hand, is referenced as ‘groups, which’ or the aforementioned ‘strategists’.

Be aware of euphemisms and dysphemisms. Receiving information is good, but don’t fall for the word play.

2. Ambiguity, That-Sometimes-Interesting-Thing

Take a look at the following sentence:

Because human features may barely be detectable during much of the first trimester, when 9 of 10 abortions are performed, some women find viewing the images reassuring.
Sack impresses me. That’s a golden amorphous sentence—I bet that nearly all readers finish it thinking, ‘Oh, first-trimester fetuses are just blobs and seeing them has no effect on women.’ And yet, Mr. Sack doesn’t make that claim–at least, not concretely. Instead, his statements are couched by terms like ‘may barely’ or ‘some’.

Ambiguity is not only is what is written, but largely also in what is not written. For example, Mr. Sack never directly comments on what type or quality of ultrasounds women are given in abortion clinics.

His article only contains two vague indications: the first occurs in the opening paragraph, which portrays a woman named Laura, about to have an abortion, staring “away from the grainy image on the screen.” Okay, so we know they are ‘grainy’. The second comes from a post-abortive woman named Tiesha, who Mr. Sack quotes as saying, “It [the 8-week old fetus] just looked like a little egg, and I couldn’t see arms or legs or a face.”

No wonder Mr. Sack chose to be ambiguous in the ‘human features’ sentence. Look up high-quality, 4-D ultrasound images 8-week old fetuses. I highly doubt Tiesha saw what you see in those images—a fetal image from the best ultrasound technology wouldn’t be confused with a ‘little egg’.

3. Emotional Appeal, aka ‘Feel Good—Agree with Me’

‘Appeal to emotion’ is a powerful tool, but it also happens to be a logical fallacy. The fallacy runs something like this: A is associated with B. B is associated with positive (or negative) emotions. Therefore, A is a good (or bad) thing.

Take Sack’s following sentence: “But a number of women at the Birmingham clinic, which was the site of a fatal bombing in 1998, said they simply did not want to subject themselves to images that might haunt them.” The bombing of the Birmingham clinic has nothing to do with the ultrasound discussion. However, all sorts of negative emotions towards anti-abortion supporters are wrapped up in any mention of anti-abortion violence. Likely, those emotional connotations will transfer onto the also anti-abortion, ultrasound advocates, even though the two aren’t actually  connected at all.

Sack also embeds a lot of emotional quotations into his article, particularly at the beginning and end. The article closes with an interviewee concluding that ultrasounds are “emotional torture.”

This recalls an earlier statement, made by the National Abortion Federation’s president. Laws, she says, that require ultrasound images be available to women who choose to view them “don’t respect women’s ability to make informed choices.”

Funny, that. I never knew that providing information was disrespecting someone’s ability to use information. Thank you for enlightening me, Ms. Saporta!

4. Appeal to Authority, Their Word is my Communiqué

A writer need resources and authorities when he/she writes an article, particularly a news article. But choosing those authorities has a huge impact on the spin of the piece. Are they objective? Are they knowledgeable? Do cited statistics come from credible sources?

Sack uses at least two authorities that seems to be fallacious: first, people who are either unknowledgeable or highly biased, and secondly, questionable statistics.

Let’s look at Sack’ interviewee list:
Laura: 36-year old post-abortive woman
Tiesha: 27-year-old post-abortive woman
Carmen: 28-year-old post-abortive woman
Diane Derzis: abortion clinic owner
Vicki Saporta: president of the National Abortion Federation
Linda Meek: director of Reproductive Services abortion clinic in Tulsa
Carrie Earll: spokeswoman from Focus on the Family
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For an article concerning abortion law and the boundaries of informed medical consent, Sack’s article has a startling lack of interviews with lawmakers or non-abortionist physicians. Also, the only voice on the pro-life side comes from Focus on the Family—undeniably, an organization with a pre-existing reputation among secular media, no matter or just or unjust that reputation may be.

Six of Sack’s seven interviews were with already pro-abortion advocates—once a reader notices that, the slant of the article begins to be recognizable. Another way to  reveal bias is to look at the source and type of cited statistics.

Sack writes:

In one of the few studies of the issue — there have been none in the United States — two abortion clinics in British Columbia found that 73 percent of patients wanted to see an image if offered the chance. Eighty-four percent of the 254 women who viewed sonograms said it did not make the experience more difficult, and none reversed her decision.
I was unable to find the source of this ‘study’. Where is Sack getting this information? And since when are two Canadian abortion clinics an adequate sample size or representation of all American abortion clinics?

Later in the article, Sack takes the report of an abortion clinic owner as an authority concerning ultrasound’s effectiveness or lack thereof. Again, Sack cites illegitimate statistical authority and inadequate sample size/representation.

Conclusion: Read Defensively

I know that here at Evangelical Outpost we often talk about ‘reading charitably’. And that’s true and good. All the same, reading a modern news piece on sensitive topics like abortion, health care, euthanasia, religion and other similar topics calls for a different method of reading than does reading other types of literature. Sack’s article could compel a blithe reader into, at best, opinion with strength unwarranted by the evidence and, at worst, pure uninformed belief. Read well, read defensively and seek out truth–it remains unmovable beneath any spin.

33 Things: The Week’s Amusing & Intriguing Links

1. “Is Marquette Free to be Catholic?”

2. Justice Souter’s Commencement Address to Harvard Graduates

3. A “menaissance” is under way, and the classically clad “retrosexual” is leading the charge.

4. Just tell him the last five books you read, and he’ll tell your future…book.

5. A growing collection of actual courses from Ivy League Universities (this includes Oxford and Cambridge) Most of these courses also provide course material.  The best part is, it’s FREE!  Education for the Masses!

6. Submit your accent for research.

7. What an oyster has to say about…Jamestown?

8. “The right to remain silent” doesn’t apply… when you start talking.

9. If success breeds contempt, then bloggers are finally making it big.

10. On Waxing the Face of a Thirteen-Year-Old Girl

11. The Quest for Frisson

12. Librarians: not as quiet as you thought.

13. The gift of a mother’s voice

14. Superheroes have to go to school too, you know.

15. Hey, at least they got his name right…

16. Peggy?  Ted?  Harry?  Who comes up with these names, anyway?

17. Socrates meets the Home Shopping Network:

Do not thank me, Glaucon, for I have merely demonstrated to you what you already know about the EZ-Klean Mop™.

18. How to get your camera back if/when you leave it or lose it.

19. Lost, re-enacted by cats in 2 minutes:

20. It may be time to throw out that bulky home entertainment system.  Meet the future: a combination of Jeeves & R2D2.

21. It may be a ‘duh’, but Jesus didn’t read the New Testament.

22. Jordi Savall’s Jerusalem in concert:

“Jerusalem is a city that makes you feel you are very close to the heavens because the clouds, they are very close,” Savall says. “The city is in a high space, and you feel in a very different situation than anywhere else in the world.”

23. Christian music….from SPAAAAAACE!

24. What’s in a name? Just your destiny, that’s all.

25. One, Two, Three… Say “Potato Starch!”

26. Use the sounds of the streets of Hamburg to compose music: the Philharmoniker Hamburg uses 5 webcams and the millions of Hamburg resident to give you urban musical sounds, all at your disposal.

27. A fun way to teach your kid (or yourself) about the sounds and look of 5 different natural habitats: Echogenesis.

28. You, yes you can conduct an a capella or beatbox band! In French! (Or English, if you want to be boring.)

29. Music for Kids Who Can’t Read Good brings you the [indie] sounds of summer.

30. An imagination bank. Share what you imagine, read the imaginations of other.

31. Now this is just cool. Design your own flame-art. (See example below…)

32. Hope for human spaceflight?

33. Ye Olde Medieval Fortress… in Arkansas

33 Things: The Week’s Interesting & Intriguing Links

1. Google’s Demise.

2. Kung fu bear from Japan.  Seriously.

The obligatory ‘Lost’ links:
3. Unsatisfied by the LOST finale?  You’re not alone.

4. Wired: As Lost Ends, Creators Explain How They Did It, What’s Going On

5. Fill the Lost Shaped Hole in Your Life….With Friday Night Lights

6. How Lost should have ended.

7. Ken Burns get you ready to hit the national parks this summer?  The NPS is working hard to make sure they’re everything you hope they’ll be.

8. Bill Gates told Steve Jobs about the iPad in 2007.  Steve Jobs thought that PCs were the future.

9. Parents beware: What are the Disney Princesses really teaching your daughter?

10. Sex and the City: call it trendy, but don’t call it feminism.

11. Rebelling against adolescence

12. The Elephant and the Dragon: Of Republicans and Tea Parties

13. Confessions of a Hipster…

14. Beam me up, Scotty!

15. Before you are foreclosed on or before you file for bankruptcy, you should think about a short-sale of your home.  Here’s a helpful website to answer your questions about an important technique that might help you get out of your messy upside-down mortgage situation.

16. The reason using your phone while you travel costs so much money: “So what is it? Price fixing? Excessive regulation? Actual expenses? Why on earth does it cost 20 times more to visit a webpage on your smartphone on one part of the planet’s surface over another? The reasons are complicated, but don’t abandon all hope—yet.”

17. Afghanistan war costs are now outpacing costs of the Iraq war.

18. Anthony Esolen on Shakespeare as a Christian:

There is an abundance of evidence to show that Shakespeare was a profoundly Christian playwright—and far more thoroughly concerned with the theology of grace, repentance, and redemption than any of his contemporaries. Here I should like to note one characteristic of his view of the world that seems to spring from his Christian faith—for it certainly does not spring from any recrudescence of paganism in the Renaissance, nor from the worldly laxity that sets in with the fading of western man’s assurance of Christian dogma and morals. For Shakespeare, chastity is as near to an absolute value as it is possible for a virtue to be.

19. Apple overtakes Microsoft as the world’s most valuable technology company.

20. 3 Facebook settings every user should check – now!

21. Your high school aged kid is smart, ambitious, and Christian.  Sign him or her up for Wheatstone this week – you’ll remember Wheatstone as one of the best decisions you ever made for your child’s education.  THIS IS THE FINAL WEEK TO REGISTER!

22. One woman’s tribute to (and confession of) everything she purchased for three years.

23. Google search as poetry.

24. Your parents don’t have to be well-read for you to be educated…they just have to keep books around (would this work with a kindle?)

25. The Info Ladies of Bangladesh

26. Phoenix Loses A Wing

27. Edible crayons!

28. Perfect for foodie fanboys (and fangirls!)

29. I Hate It When That Happens:  Today Show host Ann Curry Confuses Wheaton Colleges….in a Commencement Address

30. Abraham Piper is as Intrigued by Himself as We are With Him (Bonus points if you can follow all the layers of self-linking at work here)

31. The Society of American Law Teachers may be boycotting US News Law School Rankings- citing the weight given to LSAT scores as an inhibitor to diverse law school classes.

32. Facebook got the attention of Congress, but CEO Mark Zuckerberg is not too happy about it.

33. Is Hollywood whitewashing the film versions of popular fiction? You bet it is. ‘