Friday, August 31, 2007

Baby Einstein, Hack Journalism

There's a short, terrible article by Alice Park in Time magazine this month. I will quote it here in full:

"How Not to Raise a Genius: Is Baby Einstein doing your child more harm than good?

"There are no shortcuts when it comes to learning, and that applies to becoming a prodigy as well. Popular videos such as the Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby series have attracted millions of parents eager to give their babies an intellectual leg up. But a recent study shows that these products might be doing more harm than good. Experts at the University of Washington reported early in August that for every hour each day that infants watched the kaleidoscope of changing images and music on these DVDs, they understood an average of seven fewer words than babies who did not use such products. 'The assumption is that stimulation is good, so more is better,' says Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician and co-author of the study. 'But all the research to date shows that there is no such benefit.'

"That's hardly reassuring to parents who last year spent 200 million on the Baby Einstein series. They might consider instead the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends that infants under 2 not watch anything on a screen and instead just interact with parents."

If Alice Park had actually read the study mentioned in her article, instead of skipping right to the University of Washington's press release on it, she would understand that it did not specifically evaluate any Baby Einstein products at all. The authors of the study asked questions pertaining to the general category of "baby videos," rather than Baby Einstein in particular. Regardless of whether Park did not read the study or she simply did not understand it, this is still piss-poor journalism. I've come to expect nothing less from Time, which has disappointed me with every issue I've picked up in the last several months.

Additionally, there are a few other problems with the article worth pointing out. The pompously phrased idea that "there are no shortcuts when it comes to learning" is basically incoherent. It's not even possible to conceive of a "shortcut to learning" that would not itself warrant the description of "learning," albeit of a more efficient kind. Consider, for example, a sci-fi scenario in which babies have USB ports installed in their skulls allowing Disney to simply jack information directly into their brains via a neural-cybernetic interface. It's hard to imagine a shorter "shortcut" than this, but if the information were absent at first and then present afterward, the act by which the brain acquired it would still be called "learning."

My family owns one Baby Einstein video. I have watched My First Signs: See and Sign with Baby from beginning to end with my son, Jack, several times. Park's description of the video as a "kaleidoscope of changing images and music" hardly does it justice, except insofar as this might apply to any commonplace multimedia presentation (as seen, perhaps, by a time-travelling visitor from the 18th century). This mischaracterization further reveals the lack of care and attention with which the author has reviewed her source material.

A co-author of the study, Dr. Dimitri Christakis, is quoted as saying, "The assumption is that stimulation is good, so more is better." To whom does this assumption belong? To Disney? To parents? To the researchers who designed the study? It is not clear whether Christakis or Park gets credit for the irresponsible ambiguity of this statement, but when it is combined with the article's murky, unqualified use of data and the idea of a "kaleidscope of changing images" the impression made on the reader is like something out of A Clockwork Orange--a harrowing, psychedelic experience so unwholesome that it actually causes children to unlearn language at the rate of 1 word every 8.5 minutes.

Alice Park and Dr. Dimitri Christakis are right to claim that children are better off being spoken and read to by attentive mothers and fathers rather than plunked in front of the television set all day. To any thoughtful parent, this information should be self-evident and accessible by plain common sense. People who require an opportunistic, manipulative and ill-informed magazine article to convince them of its validity should probably think twice about having babies in the first place before they start worrying about raising geniuses.

I don't particularly care for the garish theme parks and neutered fairy tales of the Walt Disney corporation, but I have even less time for bad writing and bad thinking. I don't think Baby Einstein is going to raise our son in lieu of his mother and me--it's basically Sesame Street with classical music. Speaking more generally, I don't think watching a "baby video" once in a while is going to hurt him, either.

I would be more concerned if he wanted to start reading recent issues of Time magazine.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Monday, August 27, 2007

"Slovania" by Laibach, The Good Old Days

Here's another video from Laibach's Volk album. The first time I watched it, I didn't really get the irony, or the whole nuclear war subtext. Then again, their irony is lost on a lot of people, and they're often mistaken for either neo-nazis or communist sympathizers. I think that's why I like Laibach, even though I'm not crazy about everything they've put out. I find them more subtle and creative than many North American industrial acts. They have a real rock opera-ish quality about them, and the fact that they spent the 1980's in communist Yugoslavia gives them a little more political credibility, I think, than many self-styled "activist" groups here in North America.

I can remember a time about ten years ago when I thought "revolutionary" (postmodern) politics were the coolest thing since sliced bread. My friend Ondrej and I would drink Labatt Maximum Ice and talk about anarchism, communism (he's a Czech, and at that point it had been less than 10 years since the velvet revolution) and all kinds of stuff that kids think is interesting before they go to college. There was a time in my life when I thought Marx was just misunderstood and misapplied, and that the "pure" socialist economy (i.e. one that replaces the act of exchange with a top-down notion of "social justice") was a great idea hampered only by a nasty and inconvenient human nature. Spending a year and a half in the Czech Republic was enough to convince me that there had been something fundamentally ugly and inhuman at the heart of Marxist socialism, and four years of "the university experience" led me to the conclusion that most political posturing is naive, narcissistic, self-serving horseshit.

I still like Laibach, though, although my enjoyment is more than a little nostalgic.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

"Anglia" by Laibach

Laibach are a Slovenian industrial band that have been around since the early 1980's. On their newest album, Volk, they play industrial covers of different countries' national anthems.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Saruman Does Not Approve

"Your love of the halflings' leaf has clearly slowed your mind."

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Good Life?

I'm so bourgeois I don't know what to do with myself. If I'm feeling a bit peckish, I make myself a sandwich (with light mayonnaise, of course). The last time I was feeling blue, I cheered myself up by ordering $40 worth of books online.

In the next life, I'll probabably be reincarnated as a pillbug or something.

It's All in the Context

I recently saw an article on the notoriously shallow and inane MSN News page entitled, "Tipping: Is 20% the New 15%?"

What a fascinating question! It and others like it might just keep me up all night:

Is turquoise the new black?

Is 8 the new 5?

Is cake the new pie?

Hilarious. And some people say po-mo has lost its ability to charm and inspire.

Summer '07 (the black hole) part 3: Josh Goes Through the Windshield

I got a call last Friday from my wife informing me that Josh, my younger brother, had been in a car accident. I found out various details over the course of the week: He had been asleep in the passenger seat (buckled in) when the vehicle in which he was travelling hit a parked car, he went through the windshield (figure that one out), the vehicle caught fire, etc. The police told him that had his seatbelt engaged, he'd be dead right now, because when the examined the car they found most of the engine sitting on his seat.

Poor Josh landed on someone's lawn in a suburb of Red Deer (missing 30 feet of pavement for 10 feet of grass, apparently), and woke up from his original nap in the hospital. His eyelid and one of his ears were nearly torn off, and his lip was split so badly that he tells me he accidentally stuck his tongue through the hole below his bottom lip. He took 130 stitches in his head and face alone. He also suffered multiple broken ribs and, most seriously, a lacerated liver. They're keeping him in the hospital because apparently there's a high risk he'll contract pneumonia in the next little while.

I'm very glad my little brother isn't dead. I'm also alarmed at how quickly and easily several tons of metal and glass gone awry can mangle the delicate bones and tissues of a human body (like Josh's or Eva's), and how, when that phone rings, you never really know what you're going to hear from the other end.

God(s), bless my family. You can have our blood, but please leave us our lives.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Summer '07 (the black hole) Part 2: Sox Passes Away

Sox, our beloved family pet of 15 years, was put to sleep at the New Minas Animal Hospital on July 31st, 2007. She was suffering from what we think was end-stage renal failure. Accompanying her at the end were Josh, Alex, and myself. She went quickly and (we hope) painlessly, but it was still sad for all of us. I always figured Sox would be one of those cats that live to be 20 or 21--she seemed so well preserved, like she was drying up as she aged, instead of falling apart--but I was wrong.

It was surreal (and really shitty) to see her lying there, limp, with her eyes open and glassy. I kissed her on her forehead (or the feline equivalent) and she smelled strongly of anaesthetic. We had to put her hindquarters in a plastic bag before we put her in her burial box for the ride home, because bodies get leaky when they're dead. We buried her out back of my mom's house, by the shed, in a 3 x 3 x 3 hole that Alex dug the day before.

It hurt my heart.

It's weird. When I was a child, I figured the stories my parents told us about "Cat Heaven," or "Dog Heaven" were just white lies meant to make us feel better. Now that I'm an adult, and my idea of the afterlife rests on the idea of my quasi-divine ancestors, in the distant future, having access to some technological means of locally or globally reconstructing space-time, I'm pretty sure that if people make it to Heaven, then the animals with whom we've developed meaningful and affectionate moral relationships probably do, too.

I'll never forget her elegant silhouette, her haughty, proud demeanor, and her charming, throaty, distinctly Siamese manner of catspeaking. I'll remember how we came home from Dad's house one weekend (I was 12) to find that our mother had got us a little gray kitten with white feet who was so freaked out by the sudden appearance of 5 scrambling, clutching, chattering children that she shat on the floor. She fell asleep curled up on my lap as I practiced the piano that night. I'll remember how every time I'd go off to college, once she started to get older, I'd find her right before I left and tell her that she'd better stick around until I got back. I'll remember how dense and heavy she was in her prime, for such a small animal, and how in the last 2 or 3 years of her life she seemed to weigh almost nothing, like she was made of paper.

She was a beautiful, exotic creature in a family of mutts. We'll all miss her.

Summer '07 (the black hole) part 1: Getting Married

Sorry I've been away for so long. It's been a very eventful summer, full of comedy and tragedy both. Since I wasn't able to keep the blog up-to-date while everything was going on, I'll go over some of the highlights in the next couple of posts.


Getting married was pretty cool. Shouts out to Josh Spicer, as well as Jeremy and Josh MacEachern, for hosting a bachelor party that would make a rock star blush, and to Marc "The Face" Harper for his Moncton street-savvy and his willingness to take one for the team (he phoned his girlfriend at 4 in the morning to ask her where to buy booze, and she was furious). I'm sure the Colonial Inn has seen worse debauchery, but this blogger sure hasn't.

The ceremony was short and tasteful, lots of family members and dear friends were in attendance, and the weather was cooperative. Props to Frederick Turner for giving us permission to read his unpublished poem, "Epithalamium," and to Robyn's cousin Pearce (or Pierce, I'm not sure how he spells his name) for his bagpiping skills. My only complaint lies with our young, inexperienced minister, who probably should have told someone he had a beef with Aristophanes' story of the stuck-together-people at some point before Cat got up and read from Plato's Symposium. Original sin is a doozy of a theological concept, but it was an unnecessary and inappropriate downer to remind everyone, mid-wedding and without warning, of how unhappy God is with the humans he created. I don't think that a wedding is exactly the time to sermonize about divine disappointment. Or maybe, as Robyn suggests, he was just being unclear. Since I don't expect to see him again anytime soon, we may never know for sure.

I'm a firm believer in the felix culpa myself. The fall describes the unavoidable shame and difficulty of human self-consciousness. If it weren't for original sin, we'd still be relatively ignorant lower animals.

The reception was a great time. Depeche Mode's "Somebody" was a good choice for the first dance, Harper was a great MC, Charlie's speech was a riot, and Matthew Hunter tore up the dance floor. So did my drunk mom, whose technicolour yawn outside the reception hall has become a MacEachern family legend. Other highlights included Chantal's moving slideshow, and the Spicers' timely bottle of Dom Perignon. The MacEacherns and the Eddies were well-represented, as were the Hunters, the Parkers, the CK crew, the Flophouse/STU almuni, the Sackvillains, and we even had a few stragglers left over from the original Berwick school.

Our honeymoon was nice and relaxing. We saw Charlottetown and Brudanelle, stuffed ourselves with lobster, and slept late for 5 days. We went canoeing, and fought the whole time, we got drunk and watched Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and we had a lot of sex. Also, we saw a raccoon climb down a brick wall face first in broad daylight to get into the garbage cans at a snooty country club. Thanks to the Hunter family for looking after Baby Jack while we partied it up in PEI.

It's good to be in love.

Overall, a good time was had by everyone. It was a shame that some of the folks we invited couldn't make it, but c'est la vie. The people who could come just had to party 33% harder.

(If I forgot anyone or anything, I apologize. Don't be afraid to brow-beat me for it in the comments section of this post).

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Sea Bricks Make Good Book Ends.

Divinity is grave.

Philosophy is its own consolation.

Gods rest you, H.P.