Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Evils of Advertizing

My alma mater has only last week started blaring rock music in between plays at football games. Football at Notre Dame is sacred, and it is strange that they are playing with this ritual (adding music and a jumbo-tron, which is under consideration, is the football equivalent of Vatican II reforms). There are mixed reactions to it. From what I hear, the music on the loudspeakers is competing with the marching bands' music (USC also had their band there last week), and it makes the announcements impossible to hear. At the very least they need to coordinate the sound system better. But the bigger issue is that if (when) they get the jumbo-tron, it will be paid for by a corporate sponsor, who will expect to have commercials played on the screen.  ND people were actually saying that the ND stadium was said to be one of the quietest in the country, so something had to be done. Apparently, ND is slow to add music and a giant screen; I guess tradition was important.  Some say the stadium was quiet because students only make up a small portion of the stadium (capacity 80,795; it was expanded from just over 59,000 when I was a student there; there are just under 12,000 students, of which only 8371 are undergrads. Students used to make up almost 20% of the stadium, but now they are less than 15% of the audience).  Professional sports events are now dominated by giant TVs and sound systems.  I guess the game itself is not exciting enough, and we need to be stimulated by music and ads. Of course, it is the ads that pay for this, and can bring in more money. From the commercial point of view, if you don't do this, you are leaving money on the table.

The issue of advertising's effect on society is addressed by a very interesting column by George Monbiot entitled Sucking Out Our Brains Through Our Eyes.  He notes that advertizing pays for his salary, especially as the sales of physical copies of newspapers decline, and newspapers rely more and more on ad revenue from online websites. Bloggers rely on ads too. But it is having a pernicious effect on our culture, making us more and more extrinsic in our value orientation, rather than intrinsic.
People with a strong set of intrinsic values place most weight on their relationships with family, friends and community. They have a sense of self-acceptance and a concern for other people and the environment. People with largely extrinsic values are driven by a desire for status, wealth and power over others. They tend to be image-conscious, to have a strong desire to conform to social norms and to possess less concern for other people or the planet. They are also more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression and to report low levels of satisfaction with their lives.

Monbiot ruminates on how dependent he is on advertizing for his income. I'm guilty too, in that I enjoy the free content on websites ("free" websites are made possible by ads, of course).  If people were more aware of how ads distort their thinking, they might be more careful. But research has found that everyone overestimates their ability to discount advertising.  It really is insidious.  And it is about to enter the Notre Dame stadium, which is practically sacred ground.  There really is no place safe from advertizing. How many years before there are corporate logos (aside from the jersey manufacturers) on players' uniforms?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

China banning US scholars

The cases of US China scholars who are banned from traveling to China should receive more attention than it does receive.  Here is a Bloomberg story from August that discusses the best-known cases.  It is very depressing and disturbing.  I view this as a case of two steps forward and one step back; China is in general much more open than in the past, but this banning of professors is, well, outrageous. And depressing.  These are not people who are activists or law breakers, certainly not in China, and not even in the US. Their difficulties are especially disturbing because they are not officially banned--they just have their visa requests denied. This then leads others to suggest that there must be more to it, or that it is better to wait and see. But what has clearly happened is that they get on some security blacklist, and then no one in China wants to take responsibility for taking them off the list.

Another interesting aspect of the story is that the Xinjiang scholars' problems started because the editor of the book sent a copy of the book to the security people who had shown interest in their book, and that led them to translate it. Instead of this being a sign of good faith and open scholarly exchange (and that they had nothing to hide), it got them into trouble. You are better off avoiding security in China, the exact opposite of the approach in the West, where keeping your activities open is a sign of good faith. Most Chinese I know avoid dealing with "gongan" as much as possible, and treat them like the plague.

More pressure needs to be put on China to stop barring scholars from visiting China. Or, if they continue to do so, there has to be a cost. It is actually an embarrassment to many Chinese that this is happening, so it is important to seek allies to continue opening up China and letting security authorities understand that this is not acceptable internationally. And if other China scholars do not speak out, they are complicit, and give credence to claims that I hear every now and then that scholars self-censor. And universities need to speak out too, collectively.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Puzzle of Students Talking in Class

I have finally solved a puzzle that has been bothering me for years, and something that visiting professors have asked me about but I could not answer. Our HK students are overwhelmingly polite and well-mannered. There are a few things about which they have different manners, like answering a cell phone in class. I tell students that they should turn off their phones or set them to silent mode when they are in class, and if they forget, that is OK, but they should kill it and not answer the phone. I joke that leaning down and speaking softly does not fool anyone. Today, a student rushed out class with his phone in his hand and said "Wei?" as he was walking out the door, to the amusement of many students in the class. This, I accept, is a difference in standards of politeness, and I just think students need to be taught that in the business and professional world, you do not answer the phone in a meeting (though it is shocking how many academic meetings I have attended where someone thinks they are so important they can answer their phone at the seminar table).

The need to teach phone manners, I understand. What I have been perplexed about is how common it is for students to talk to each other in class. They not only do not whisper but talk, but it goes on for a long time, often for the entire class unless I say something ("Excuse me, do you have a question?").  I have even taking to joking that because Cantonese is a tonal language, students cannot whisper; it is as though a whisper would not carry tones, and so cannot be used. They actually voice their murmurings, which is quite distracting to the lecturer.

Yesterday I took a couple of students out to lunch as part of a "teacher-advisee" program that our department has. It is a great chance to get to know a few students better (I think students dread these lunches, but seem to warm to them after we don't eat them alive in the first 10 minutes).  My very simpatico students told me that they had expected university to be a time of freedom, but they are shocked that they have to work even harder than in secondary school!  One commented that it was OK to talk during class in secondary school, but noted with surprise that some university teachers don't allow that. She said it is a far cry from what she had been told, i.e. that at university you don't even have to go to class! She said they are so busy, and have no time for socializing, so they enjoy talking with their new classmates in class.  Who would have known?  So I now understand why students engage in behavior that, on the face of it, seems so rude: they see it as an expression of the "freedom" of university.  Still, the talking, when it happens, makes my  poor little brain have trouble concentrating on what I'm trying to say, so I assume it must distract others in the audience as well.  I guess the socializing has to take place after my class, not during it. It's a little embarrassing how long it has taken me to figure this out. I should probably take students to lunch more often. Students talk more over lunch than in tutorials!  But then I remember my pathetic Mandarin language teacher at Columbia, who would take her favorite students out to lunch to then hold court at Moon Palace and spread rumors about other teachers.  Maybe deep down, everyone who comes out of Columbia fears becoming like her. I wonder if Michael Oksenberg ever took students out to lunch; he was her favorite student (and her best, she always reminded us).

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Cheese Superstition?

The New York Times has an interesting article about affinage, the art, or voodoo, of aging cheese, depending on your point of view. In the skeptic’s corner:

“This affinage thing is a total crock,” said Mr. Jenkins, the cheese monger at Fairway and the author of the pivotal 1996 book “Cheese Primer.” “All it does is drastically inflate the cost of cheeses that have benefited zero from this faux-alchemical nonsense.”

Mr. Jenkins, a New York retail pioneer, argues that affinage is ultimately about marketplace savvy. Long ago in places like France and Belgium, the affineur first stepped in to extract profits by acting as the middleman.

“It has nothing to do with making cheese taste really good,” he said. “It has to do with getting paid. And it’s morphed into a typical ‘French things are cool’ thing that Americans have bought hook, line and sinker. They all think, ‘I can even turn this into a marketing tool, so people will see how devoted I am to my craft.’ ”

He argues that the cheese will be fine, and that it basically makes itself.

 “And if my humidity is 35 percent different from yours, my cheese is going to taste just as good as yours. It may have a different color of mold on it, but it’ll taste just as good. And yours is going to be twice as expensive, and you’re a highway robber. And you’re contributing to the preciousness and folly of Americans trying to emulate something in France that has nothing to do with quality. It has to do with expedience. Are you getting me here?”

In the believer’s corner is Rob Kaufelt, who has owned Murray’s Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village since 1991. He argues that affinage needs to take place close to the point of sale, so he has “caves” in Manhatten. He says that exceptional care is needed throughout the process of cheese making:

This included: buying the cheese straight from the farms, using special temperature-and-humidity-controlled trucks to make sure the cheese travels without spoiling and taking care of “the affinage closer to the point of sale.”

“Most people don’t bother with this at all,” Mr. Kaufelt went on. “Most people are lazy. Most people are not obsessed with quality. The others would rather obfuscate the issue rather than spend a nickel doing what they need to do.” The proof, he wrote, “is in the eating, which I leave to you.”

The New York Times did conduct a double-blind taste test of three cheeses bought at three different stores, at Murray’s, Artisanal and Fairway. The cheese experts strongly rejected the Fairway cheeses. So TLC works on cheese, too, and connoisseurship and affinage are not just fancy French words, or superstition, but do make cheese better after all.  Who knew?!

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Constitutional Law and Assassination

I wanted to write something to indicate my indignation at the assassination of Al-Awlaki without any due process. Not that I support him, or think he's "innocent." But I find the process troubling (at one time, the CIA said it would not engage in assassinations, but now they are even assassinating US citizens abroad). And it is clearly illegal. But now I've found someone who makes the same argument, so I don't need to write my commentary: see Peter Van Buren's column in the Huffington Post.  He is right that it is especially shocking that a former professor of constitutional law would allow this to happen.

I found this column because I heard him on Fresh Air talking about his new book, We Meant Well:
How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People
. Depressing (yet funny) stories of institutional irrationality.  He has many amazing stories to tell about his time as a development officer in Iraq; you can a good sense from the Fresh Air web page, and from a piece on a chicken factory and war tourism in The Huffington Post (among other places it was published). It is a testament to American freedom that he was allowed to publish the book, but then again, it seems that because he linked his blog to a leaked Wikileak memo, he is going to fired for that (apparently that counts as leaking secrets). It sounds like China, where almost anything can be considered a state secret.