Monday, February 25, 2008

Quote-Analysis Time

"And if the neuroscientists are right, you can create new brain cells--by learning (and not being stuck in a dull cubicle)--at virtually any age."

This is from near the end of the "inspirational" treatise on practicing and skill-development that Ms. Oakes gave our class today and is asking us to have read and answer six questions on by Thursday. I agree with pretty much all the material it presents. In a nutshell, it asserts that being good at something is the product of long, dedicated practice rather than some people simply being better than others, with natural talent existing but being far less of a factor than most people give it credit for.

All that is directly in accordance with what I believe. The problem I have with this article, and what will make this post more than one happy little paragraph, lies in the first clause of the above quote, and other such parts strewn throughout the article: science. The idea is that "since scientists say it, it's true! and therefore you will believe it!" I'm not saying that serious scientists should usually be doubted, but the modern world, and this country in particular, take the trusting of science and the "scientific method" to an almost religious level.

What I have such a problem with is not so much the proving of new discoveries with scientific evidence, but the "proving" of ideas that people have already known for millennia. This article pretty much states the same thing that Suzuki Shinichi stated about musical talent--the difference is that Suzuki learnt this through long experience and dedication of his own. Whoever wrote this article just had to fire up the product of some other scientist's work. The ancient martial arts masters were always (and still are) firing morsels of pure euphonic wisdom at their students like "If enough dust accumulates, it can become a mountain" and "If you fall down seven times, get up eight times," referring the dogged striving necessary to gain mastery.

Why do people trust scientists over great teachers of other types? "Well, everyone was just running around in the dark until a bunch of rich Europeans came up with the scientific method," we're supposed to think. I mean, my mother and I always get headaches when big storms are coming. And then, what do you know, one day on the news: "Scientists have actually found that headaches can predict weather patterns!!!!111oneone~~ No one knew that before!" Of course the scientific method has its strengths. I'm not going to advocate for a better method for discovering the exact mass of magnesium dust after you've smoked it over a Bunsen burner, or the velocity you need to fire a bullet at to get a wooden block to move exactly the right distance across a table with a certain coefficient of kinetic friction. But must all wisdom be put into chemicalle formulæ and fizzikal ekwayzhuns? Does it really lead us any closer to the truth? Could anyone who reads this silly blog really make a difference about it? Am I doing the right thing by spending my time here and writing this rather than trying to use the scientific method myself to finish this horrid problem set on gravitational fields? Would the scientific method be a better way to answer these questions than common sense and wisdom?

I don't think a verbal answer is necessary for any of those mind-blowing questions, but if you're still stuck, I'll just let you know that they all have the same answer, at least according to my religion weltanschauung. Puzzle over the issues if you want. Or use proper problem solving format to find the exact answer. Then we'll compare solutions and maybe discuss it over the Sunday New York Times at a local breakfast place, or whatever you like to do when you meet someone for a friendly chat.

Lil Mugi

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sure, I'll post.

It's vacation, and I should be cheerful: I'm done with the college application process (for now), it's sunny and getting closer to spring, second trimester is almost done, and I'm sitting at home in my pajamas drinking tea. How nice that I'm relaxing, right?

Uh, no. Actually, I'm in a bad mood, and I'm nervous. There is no relaxing happening here. Why am I not relaxing, you ask? Well, I'll tell you: HOMEWORK OVERLOAD.

I have a twelve-page paper due at the end of this vacation. I have a German presentation that must get completed as well as one in AP Environmental Science, I have to write a second English paper, and write multiple entries in a journal on Invisible Man.  I also have to take a full AP Calculus practice test, which my teacher will check. Oh, wait- I have to study for a math test that I'm taking on Monday, too, and make up the days of work I missed in AP Environmental Science. 

What. The. Fuck.

This is vacation. Vacation means a period of suspension of work, study, or other activity, usually used for rest, recreation, or travel (says my dictionary). Vacation means blissful boredom. Vacation means hanging out with your friends until you hate them. Vacation means forgetting about how shitty school is by doing pointless shit. 

This is no vacation.

Since I have so much work, I am forced to model my vacation days after our awful school days. I wake up, feeling guilty like I always do when I haven't done all my homework. I mentally plan out my day. From 8:30 to 10:00 I'll work on my paper. From 10:05 to 11:05 I'll practice my violin. From 11:10 to 12:00 I'll contemplate killing myself. And so on. The afternoon progresses, I go on a run, and then it gets dark. And I've done less work than I should have, and I still feel guilty. 

Also: you'd think my teachers would be supportive of me during this non-vacation. You'd think they'd at least bake me a week's supply of brownies and give me their cell phone numbers while saying, "Look, if you need my help with anything, I'll be by my phone 24/7. Try to relax." Nope. Not a word. They avoided my eyes like the plague in class, and when the E Period bell rang on Friday they all sprinted out of the building, leaving me directionless and swamped.

I have this one teacher. Let's call her "Anna Levine," which is my name, so you'll never know her real name. I approached her last week before lunch and kindly said, "Ms. Levine, I need help with this paper. I want to write something original, but so much has been previously covered I don't know where to start! I need a week's supply of brownies to write this monster!" 

She responded as such: "You don't need to write anything original! I can't help you! Go eat lunch, it's 8:00 A.M!" And she slammed the classroom door in my face. Well, it wasn't quite like that, but you get the basic idea. No support. No help. I'm just supposed to lug fifty pounds of marked-up paper to school on my back on Monday, distribute it, and then it will be graded by my "teachers." You know, those adults with name tags who talk at us for about two minutes at the beginning of English class and then make us journal in silence for the rest of the period. 

Enough. I need to get back to recording literary symbols in a little blue book. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Driving Practice

I agree with BODO on all counts, both on the main thrust of his post and on the idea that we 'blisterers need to post more. Over the past couple days, I've been a bit conflicted over whether or not I should be the one to break this hiatus of ours, which became absolutely pointless once we hit vacation, but for some reason I didn't. Call it sloth or lack of creativity or whatever, but I couldn't find the energy. Luckily, BODO was able to find within himself that which I had not, and, as I've found to be the case quite often in the past, one person's posting sparks the creativity of the rest (that's right, Bootsie, you're next). Therefore now, after close to month of that ridiculous thing I call "The Bird of Darkness" gliding on its ashen feathers at the top of this page, we have, like the fists of the little dragon, a Double Post! (at least) coming faster than you could bat your eyelashes at me.

But anyway, that's not all I'm posting to talk about. As BODO and probably no one else already know, I went on a driving practice yesterday, and guess what? I went again today. (There's that old one-two again--it's like a thematic element or something.) This time it was down by Fort River, and I drove around and around in some kind of vague elliptical shape while wondering whether a few dedicated teachers having a conference up in a classroom were watching and all silently chortling while keeping up the ruse of being seriously involved in whatever type of meeting they would have over break. This is the main reason I don't like going on driving practices. The actual driving is pretty fun. But I always feel like I'm onstage for some kind of performance and I'm doing terribly. I remember the driver of some passing car smiling condescendingly at me in passing, probably thinking inwardly, "Look at that bumbling buffoon who can't even work the gas properly!" It sounds odd, but I feel much more socially nervous and self-conscious during driving practices than I do singing or playing music in front of a crowd.

I don't often wish this, but this is an area in which I wish life were more like a video game. (OK, OK, I admit it--I wish that pretty often in other situations, too.) I wish you could just load up "Practice Land" and be in some kind of alternate dimension while you practiced and nothing existed but the course you set out for yourself to practice on. Or maybe it could be randomly generated, and there could be Digi-Cars or something that you could crash with, but they wouldn't hurt you beyond a few minor bruises and a crushed ego. Maybe someday in the future, probably even after people are living in floating cities in the atmosphære of Jupiter that have long since revolted against the repressive Earth Government, humans will come up with an effective driving simulation.

Of course, I can't keep myself so occupied with such phantasies when I'm learning a skill that really could mean life or death, so I apply to the learning process of driving the skills I have learnt and polished so well over years of instruction in mathematics and the sciences (particularly the family and consumer ones): Do what you're told, don't question tradition, and practice with as little innovation as possible. In other words, get good without getting creative. I feel like it's a message that runs directly counter to what we're often taught as children in elementary school, but I feel like it's the only real way to learn something, at least something with a standard, accepted method. So, to make today's Double Post! tie in with the established themes, not everything is about "doing what you want." Look at all the people that are great at things (anything) and are really unique and expressive: either they have a really special talent or they learnt all the rules and finally, only after long, long, practice, supergressed traditional bounds. It is safe to say that not many people belong to the first category, and I certainly don't when it comes to driving. Questioning tradition isn't wrong, but saying it's wrong without really understanding it is a cause for a great loss of credibility, at least in my eyes. Nunc sumus tantum ob eos qui ante erant.

Lil Mugi

Let's post more

On the front page of today's New York Times, there's an article about the suicide rate among middle-aged people going twenty percent or something in the last few years. Here's the link: People don't really know how to explain it. There's one theory that it stems from all the prescription drugs that older people are using these days. Other explanations have to do with the disintegration of traditional social networks, or the large amount of Vietnam veterans who are now middle-aged. But I have my own theory, and while it might not explain this particular situation too well, I've been thinking about it all day, and this blog needs a new post.
I think our society is too fixated on having fun. I mean, of course, fun is an absolutely essential part of life, but I think Americans are obsessed with it to an unhealthy extent. For a lot of people, there is no meaning in life outside of wringing as much fun out of it as possible. Work, school, social interactions, they're all just a means to fun. The purpose of your job is to make money, so that you can go on vacation in Florida and play golf, which is fun. The purpose of school and social interactions is to party, which is fun. Seriously, so many people think this way. Fun has become so institutionalized in our society. It doesn't really seem like an organic response to life anymore. I mean, I don't know who I am to say what fun used to be, but I think that in America today, it's become almost a kind of duty. People think you're weird if you find pleasure in your work outside of the money you make doing it, or if you don't relish the idea of a golf vacation in the Bahamas. The balance between work and pleasure has become completely thrown off. Work is no longer respected or enjoyed; it's just a boring means to fun. Of course, it doesn't help that our jobs seem so meaningless these days. I mean, what do investment bankers and consultants really do, anyway, other than chasing after money?
It's a little bit like what's going in with food today. After long centuries of near-starvation, we now have more fat and sugar that we can deal with, so people just stuff themselves and get incredibly fat. Who wants broccoli when you can basically eat as many Twinkies as you want? It's the same thing with fun, except the damaging effects are much more subtle. Fun isn't really synonymous with pleasure or happiness, at least not American fun. I mean, maybe it's good for some people, but it seems like many Americans just get sucked into being fixated on golf vacations, because they feel like they should. I think to achieve real happiness, your life needs to be more of a unity. You should take pleasure in your work, just as you should take pleasure in what you do outside of work. Fun should be organic, something that you do because you like to do it, not something institutionalized, something you feel like you should do. We need to put our entire beings into everything we do; nothing should just be a means to an end. We need to stop sleepwalking through everything but the golf vacations, which probably aren't even that pleasurable anyway.
The way this ties in with the rising suicide rate is that this attitude toward life, that the ultimate goal of everything should be fun, implies that life gets progressively worse and worse after the age of thirty or so. I mean, playing squash with your buddies is okay, but it's nothing compared to the nonstop debauchery of one's late teens and twenties. If you think the only purpose of life is having fun, in a certain set of acceptable ways, what conceivable reason is there to live past fifty?