Monday 21 July
Modelo: A Beer for Hyper-Insecure Boys

Filed under TV

I mean where do I start with this one?

I don’t need to point out what’s so odious about this one, but can you imagine how insufferable the kind of guy would be who calculates his every move from the time he enters a new bar?

What’s interesting here is that Modelo, a relatively shitty, low-rent beer, has invested some money in an advertising company that employs very smart people to help make it the new Tecate, which seems to’ve become the west-coast PBR owing to being inexpensive and never advertising. So Modelo might not be so smart, but these people they’ve hired? Very smart people. All commercials operate off our fears and anxieties, and nothing scares a twentysomething hipster more than not being cool. Or, more exactly, not being seen by others as cool.

I was always a nerd. I don’t remember how or when I learned that being an adult meant no longer needing to care what other people thought about me, but this is what I had faith in growing up. I understand worrying about whether you smell, or are pretty. But worrying about whether strangers in a bar you’ve never been inside think you have good taste? It’s maybe the definition of the hipster.

1 comment  ::  Discuss  ::  2014-07-21  ::  dave

Wednesday 9 July
More on Teaching and Learning

Filed under teaching

interleaveContinuing my research into Bjork’s “desirable difficulties”, I found some video interviews he did that summed up a lot of his lab’s research into learning. One thing they’ve studied is the effect of “interleaving,” which means alternating among a set of disparate things to learn rather than learning them in dedicated blocks, one-by-one.

So for instance, they had test subjects learn painting styles throughout the history of art by focusing on 6 works each from 12 major painters. One group looked at and discussed all 6 works from Painter A, then moved on to the 6 works from Painter B, and so on. This was the “blocked learning” group. The other group looked at 1 work from Painter A, then 1 work from Painter B, and so on through all 12 painters. Then another round of new works. This latter was the “interleaved learning” group.

When, at the end of the learning period, each group was given a new set of paintings, to identify from their styles the artist who made them, the second group did better on the test. The group that learned through interleaving better recognized signature styles than the first one did.

But here’s the key thing: (more…)

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-07-09  ::  dave

Thursday 26 June
Feedback Helps Performance But Not Learning

Filed under teaching

william-staffordI’m writing this paper on what neuroscience and cognition can teach us as writers of nonfiction—who, it’s been said, write essays that “show a mind at work” without, from what I can tell, learning much about how the mind even works. A colleague of mine in the psych dept at USF turned me on to the work of Robert Bjork down at UCLA, who developed the notion of “desirable difficulty” as an aid in learning, and today I found his seminal paper on the topic: “Memory and Metamemory Considerations in the Training of Human Beings”.

What I like about psych papers—particularly ones that look at learning and cognition—is how they demistify and take the romance out of what I and my colleagues have a tendency to romance and mystify: our training human beings to be writers.

I read this:

Richard Schmidt and his collaborators … have found that … reducing the frequency of feedback makes life more difficult for the learner during training, but can enhance posttraining performance. They have demonstrated that providing summary feedback to subjects … or “fading” the frequency of feedback over trials, impedes acquisition of simple motor skills but enhances long-term retention of those skills.

Schmidt works on motor skill learning, but Bjork found correlation to verbal learning skills, too. In other words, continuous feedback (like the kind creative writing students get in workshops) feels good and makes the task of learning feel easier, but there’s plenty of evidence that it doesn’t actually help learning.

2 comments  ::  Discuss  ::  2014-06-26  ::  dave

Monday 16 June
The Best Commercial on TV Right Now

Filed under TV

It’s this:

I hate commercials. Now that cell phones and the NSA’s domestic spying practices have driven “being dupefully surveilled” up to the top of the list of my greatest fears and anxieties, “being effectively marketed to” is at most a distant second. Still, I hate being effectively marketed to. I like DVRs’ commercial-hopping abilities. But I don’t hop over Esurance’s “Beatrice” ad, because every element is so exquisite.

Let me direct your attention to:

  • All parts of Beatrice’s outfit, particularly the scarf and its knot’s location w/r/t the hang of her bosom.
  • How Beatrice points to her “wall” and then revises that pointing for more emphasis and clarity.
  • The look the critical friend gives the supportive friend after her, “Ooh! I like that one!”
  • The cut on “fifteen percent” that shifts our attentions from the supportive friend to the critical one.
  • The faint gasp heard from Supportive in the wake of Beatrice’s unfriending.
  • The well earned vocal fry on 66% of these women.
  • Beatrice’s continued gesturing during Jim Halpert’s voiceover that broadcasts her pitying attitude toward this supposedly more savvy friend.
  • The piano in the corner at the end, which of course Beatrice can play and perhaps teaches lessons for.

It’s got in 30 seconds the same richness of detail dudes in magazines fawn over Wes Anderson features for. Every time it comes on I sit up in my seat, leaning forward the way I imagine Sontag did in the second row of a movie theater.

(Or was that Pauline Kael?)

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-06-16  ::  dave

Saturday 14 June
Very Good Paragraphs

Filed under Very Good Paragraphs

From Jonathan Dee’s shrewd and unassailable review of the new Updike biography in this month’s Harper’s. More of a review of Updike and his career. Sadly it’s for subscribers only:

If there’s a category-buster in Updike’s vast oeuvre, it’s the tetralogy of Rabbit novels, which on its face is both realistic and nonautobiographical. Updike, in a foreword to the Modern Library collection of these works—which trace the life of a former high school basketball star turned car salesman, from disillusioning, rebellious young adulthood to material success to death—described Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom (I have always hated the condescending obviousness of that last name) as “incorrigible—from first to last he bridles at good advice, taking direction only from his personal, also incorrigible God.” But what strikes one now, reading across Updike’s oeuvre, is how similar Rabbit is, in the end, to Piet Hanema or Richard Maple or Henry Bech or other Updike stand-ins. He trivializes rather than embodies his era’s struggle with expanded freedoms by using them to grant himself moral immunity from the consequences of fucking whomever he likes. Characters don’t have to be likable, of course; but the off-putting aspect of Rabbit, Run isn’t that it’s about a man, worshipped in his youth for his natural talent, who doesn’t question his own droit de seigneur in abandoning his pregnant wife and young child to shack up with a local floozy (whom he treats with contempt) because he is bored; it’s that Updike—who later wrote of the “heavy, intoxicating dose of fantasy and wish-fulfillment” that went into the writing of the novel—proposes that he’s telling a story about America, not a story about Updike.

Boom! What’s great is how this review is more than a refutation of some common pro-Updike arguments, chiefly the “Say what you want about his misogyny, the man wrote some beautiful sentences” defense. Later Dee does some fair and smart quoting to show that Updike’s sentencing was often (as it so often is with writers) a way to use art and artifice to shirk more moral duties, to give himself license to avoid having to delve more sympathetically into his (female, usually) characters’ psyches. Rather than settle for refuting the Updike-as-lyricist defense, he makes a smarter claim: “It makes him seem like a more interesting and instructive writer, if not necessarily a better one, to understand his profligate [lyric] gifts not only as a strength but as a weakness.”


 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-06-14  ::  dave

Friday 13 June
Watch Old Spice Turn Moms into Witches

Filed under TV

Let’s begin a series of posts about TV commercials. Have you seen this Old Spice one?

I’m impressed by how smart it is. Here we have a bunch of moms with long skirts hanging out in a tree. One is weeping a rain of tears. She sings a minor-key A/A/B/A dirge lamenting her son’s new sexual prowess. It’s the exact kind of tune witches would chant in the woods around a cauldron. Listen again:

Old Spice isn’t nice
and it comes with a price.
My boy, Garret, chose to wear it
now he can’t help but entice.
All these ladies, all these women
are up on him like lice.
As a mother I condemn new
body spray from Old Spice.

More than the easily won, consequence-free attraction from hot models slightly older than you, what’s alluring to teen boys (I speak from experience) is knowing that you’ve both vanquished your mother while also retaining her undying love. It might be the key fantasy of adolescence.

This commercial’s a lot less fun than the ones where moms, like, slither across the floor and up on the furniture while singing a kind of power anthem about Old Spice’s ability to kick up the sexness vis-a-vis one’s son, but I argue that it’s way more psychically effective. I wish I’d written it.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-06-13  ::  dave

Monday 9 June
Things I Saw at the Smithsonian Today That I Love

Filed under Uncategorized

(mostly closed for renovations)

Jeremy Deller’s “English Magic” (2013)
[worth waiting for or fast forwarding to 09:00]


 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-06-09  ::  dave

Friday 6 June
My Mother Told Me, According to My Mother

Filed under Books

I just logged in to my blog service’s Dashboard, and I skipped over the option for it to “Remember Me”, which seems an indication that I and my blog service have fallen out of whatever relationship we had with each other back in the sunny days of January when I was blogging like once a week!

At any rate, I’m typing this from Fairfax, Virginia’s own 29th Parallel Coffee & Tea, which is in the strip mall by my sister’s, just down from a mattress store and a 7-11, and which specializes in the kind of slow, thin-streamed poursover I’ve somewhat solipsitically assumed were only an artifact of the Pacific Northwest. These kind:


But I’m not having coffee, I’m having a pot of tangerine ginger tea that I don’t so much enjoy as feel all right about drinking now that my acupuncturist has told me ginger is a smart food to put in my body so’s to assuage certain digestive troubles I’ve been having for a long time. I drink tea and have an acupuncturist and I do yoga once a week. What’s my name?

On the plane over I read (in its entirety! in addition to watching three Portlandias!) Donald Antrim’s memoir, The Afterlife, which is both about the death of and dedicated to his mother. He spends lots of time throughout citing certain family-history data in something she once told him. But like get a load of this sentence that opens a paragraph toward the end of Part III:

My mother told me that the storage facility in which S. had deposited his Frederic Church—I had, I realize now, come to think of the painting as belonging to S.; and, with this in mind, and on the strength of hearsay evidence transmitted through channels that I knew from long experience to be unreliable (S. and my mother), had come to regard the painting as a genuine Church—the storage facility, as I was saying, was, according to my mother, very badly damaged.

It’s exactly the sort of exquisite Byzantine mess I like in a sentence’s form, but look also how that mess extends to its content. Twice therein we’re told this information came from his mother, before and after the long em-dashed appositive which explains that information (i.e. “hearsay evidence”) coming from his mother should be understood as unreliable.

The move’s rampant. I just flipped the book open to page 53 at random and found: “At the age of fifty-two, he died. My mother told me later that his weight had dropped precipitously, that he’d turned yellow, that, at the end, he’d bled through his skin.” Antrim could just as easily drop that “My mother told me later” bit and serve up his information as the reliable narrator we’ve long by now presumed him to be. But he pretty much never does.

Is this move a shirking of reliability on his own part? Are we to assume that anything preceded with “My mother told me” might be untrue? Or is this a kind of default self-policing regarding facts or moments Antrim thinks are testing our belief? Or maybe it’s a way to keep pushing his mother on the page, which makes sense given the project as a whole.

I didn’t love The Afterlife as much as I loved its sentences. I did appreciate its structure: seven parts that don’t follow chronology and cohere only in terms of the narrative voice and cast of characters. They’re not even all about his mother. It was great, but it was clear to me by the time I got to the end that anyone born after 1970 who tried to publish this book would be encouraged if not forced to do so as essays. I don’t have the book jacket on my library copy, but it’s great that there’s no clarifying subtitle anywhere in the book. That it’s allowed to just be a book.

Because without question my anxious mother (who has a tendency to put the “mother” in “smother” [I kid!], and who knows I’m back in Virginia but won’t see me for another five days) had assumed from its title that this blog post was about her, I’ll apologize for any confusion here. Sorry, mom. See you soon. Stay tuned, four other readers, for a lot of blog posts in the coming days, most of them about television commercials.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-06-06  ::  dave

Thursday 27 March
Enterprising New Idea for Music Types

Filed under music

This morning, I realized that what I needed was an app or Web engine that could recommend new music to me based on old music I liked back when it was of use to the music industry for me to like it. Because it’s rare that I hear guitars in new pop/rock music today, distorted ones at least. And I like distorted guitars. Surely someone’s using fuzzboxes?

I imagine it’d go like this. The app or site would prompt you to fill in the blank:

When I was young enough to be marketed to, I loved…

And then it would use algorithms or something to figure out what the closest present-day analogue is:

Now that you’re older, the album the kids are listening to that you might also love is…

But then you have to trust the algorithm, and what little I know about tech people and big data tells me I might not want to, that I might go When I was young enough to be marketed to, I loved…

Modest Mouse - The Lonesome Crowded West

And it would then go Now that you’re older, the album the kids are listening to that you might also love is…

Imagine Dragons

So be careful, enterprising tech people. Don’t recommend that I listen to Imagine Dragons. And get on it. Why not? Yesterday I was followed on Twitter by an app I can download to help schedule my office hours and other student meetings. Why waste time on voice mail or email trying to arrange a meeting? Why try to diminish my interactions with students which can’t be mined for data?

The saddest part of it is that I couldn’t even sign up if I wanted to. They’re currently “overloaded with requests.”

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-03-27  ::  dave

Thursday 30 January
Old Goals

Filed under Announcements

Long-time readers (!) of this blog might recall that back in 2011 I tried to work on memorizing some prose passages. I meant to start with Cheever’s opening paragraph in “The Death of Justina”. Today is the first day I’ve been able to recite it in full from memory. Here, to practice, though you’ll have to trust I’m neither peeking nor copying and pasting:

So help me God it gets more and more preposterous, it corresponds less and less to what I remember and what I expect, as if the force of life were centrifugal and threw one further and further away from one’s purest memories and ambitions, and I can barely recall the old house where I was raised, where in midwinter Parma violets bloomed in a cold frame near the kitchen door, and down the long corridor, past the seven views of Rome—up two steps and down three—one entered the library, where all the books were in order, the lamps were bright, where there was a fire and a dozen bottles of good bourbon locked in a cabinet with a veneer like tortoise shell whose silver key my father wore on his watch chain. Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice, but in a world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive there is always the danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and that the vision we serve will come to nothing. We admire decency and we despise death, but even the mountains seem to shift in the space of a night, and perhaps the exhibitionist at the corner of Chestnut and Elm streets is more significant than the lovely woman with a bar of sunlight in her hair, putting a fresh piece of cuttlebone in the nightingale’s cage. Just let me give you one example of chaos and if you disbelieve me look honestly into your own past and see if you can’t find a comparable experience.

The idea, I guess, is to know certain writing by heart, in all that this idiom connotes. I’m in love with the way this paragraph moves. I love its leaps and grounding returns. Maybe I’ll glean something from it subconsciously, but mostly I just like having it close when I need it.

Next up for memorization is this gem from Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”:

Of course the activists—not those whose thinking had become rigid, but those whose approach to revolution was imaginatively anarchic—had long ago grasped the reality which still eluded the press: we were seeing something important. We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum. Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that the society’s atomization could be reversed. This was not a traditional generational rebellion. At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling. These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society’s values. They are children who have moved around a lot, San Jose, Chula Vista, here. They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts, Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.

They feed back exactly what is given them. Because they do not believe in words—words are for “typeheads,” Chester Anderson tells them, and a thought which needs words is just one more of those ego trips—their only proficient vocabulary is in the society’s platitudes. As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language, and I am not optimistic about children who will settle for saying, to indicate that their mother and father do not live together, that they come from “a broken home.” They are sixteen, fifteen, fourteen years old, younger all the time, an army of children waiting to be given the words.

339 words to Cheever’s 280. See you in 2018.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-01-30  ::  dave

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