Saturday, August 23, 2008

Sex, Violence and Censorship

Some comments on an article about a man who really sets himself up to be made fun of.

I recently found a news story titled “Dad Wants $20K, Says Lesbian Book Disturbed Teens” here. I have a strong suspicion that the man in question is really just after some quick cash, but even so the news story serves as a perfect example of the strange views on sex and violence in society.

I have personally never understood why sex is supposed to be worse for the children than violence. But it seems like many think that’s the case. Parent groups and crusaders for morality complain whenever a “bad” word is uttered or an uncovered inch of skin is shown. Sure, they complain about violence too, but not at all to the same degree. Sex is always the real danger, according to people like that.

Either way, we all know that it is common for people to overreact at the very mention of sex, for whatever reason. But few are as funny to mock as the gentleman in the news article.

According to the article Earl Adams in Bentonville, Ark. has two sons, aged 14 and 16 who were at the public library “browsing for material on military academies.” During this they apparently found a book titled “The Whole Lesbian Sex Book” instead, and were according to Adams “greatly disturbed.”

Because of this, Adams wants the library director fired and tried to sue the city for $10,000 for each of his sons; the maximum allowed under the Arkansas obscenity law. Why does Adams think that they need such large amounts? What damage could the book have caused? Well, according to Adams, the book caused “many sleepless nights in our house.”

Well, I bet it did! Books of that nature often tend to cause “sleepless nights” for healthy young men, but they usually don’t complain about it.

Honestly, it seems very hard to find a book like that by accident while browsing information about the military. And even if the book had been misplaced there they could have just ignored it after reading the title, if they didn’t want to read it. I’m worried for them if they didn’t read it and were that “greatly disturbed” just by being reminded that lesbians exist. If so they seem to be so sexually repressed that they should get a psychologist. They should possibly get a better home too.

I’m just speculating here, but it seems more likely that they did read the book. And in that case they did so of their own free will. And it also seems likely that their tremendously strict father caught them reading the book and that’s the only reason they told him that they were greatly disturbed by it. They couldn’t very well tell such a man that they liked it.

Whatever the boys did, and whatever their real intentions were, the father overreacted extremely though. He is totally ok with his young sons reading about military academies, after all, that’s good and healthy, right? Joining the military has never held any danger, none at all. A book on lesbian sex, though, that is very dangerous. I’m not sure exactly how, but obviously it is. It’s $10,000 dollars worth of dangerous just seeing such a book. Obviously.

Well, thankfully “the city’s attorney dismissed Adam’s claim as baseless” and he didn’t get his $20,000, so there seems to be some sanity left in the world. He did manage to get the book off the shelves of the library though.

According to the article, Adams said in an e-mail that “God was speaking to my heart that day and helped me find the words that proved successful in removing this book from the shelf.” And “Any effort to reinstate the book will be met with legal action and protests from the Christian community.”

Don’t you just love these people who think that they know exactly what God wants? And these guys who think that they can claim to speak for the entire Christian community… It’s just such wonderful humility and modesty!

Sometimes when I write it can seem like I have a problem with religious people in general. I really, really don’t. It’s just people like this guy, who feels that he alone has the right to dictate what is going to be on the shelves of a public library and decide what other people are allowed to read.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Are our Kids Learning Anything Worthwhile in School?

Is “never” the best answer to “When will it ever be useful to know this?”

recently heard it said, in a very negative tone, that “In school, kids learn things just to be able to spout them out for tests and essays. The school system is more of a test of being able to acquire knowledge than preparation for anything worthwhile.”

I think that this is pretty much true. For instance, if you would ask me about slavery in ancient Rome I could tell you a lot of details about that. I could for instance tell you a lot about how many slaves there were, what kinds of jobs they did, how they could gain freedom and how the chance of freedom likely affected their outlook on their standing in society, and how this in turn affected the Roman society as a whole. These are all things I learned many years ago back in grade school, and can still remember today.

Now, to paraphrase Fight Club: “Why do I know things like that? Is that information essential to my survival, in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word?”

Of course the answer is no. If you look at things that way, my knowledge about slavery in ancient Rome is, along with many other things, not worthwhile. That information is not something I have ever had any use for outside of a classroom environment. I only learned things like that to get a good grade on a report I was doing on the subject, nothing else. So yes, it does seem like school was more about “being able to acquire knowledge” than about learning anything useful or worthwhile.

I do not agree that this is a bad thing though. I think that school is supposed to teach you how to acquire knowledge; anything “worthwhile” you learn in the process is just a bonus. Because, in this modern ever-changing world, I don’t think that there really is much worthwhile or useful that can easily be taught, beyond very basic things.

Before modern civilization, the value of intelligence, knowledge and ability was an absolute. If you could figure out how to find or make shelter against the cold, to make tools for hunting, to find food when foraging, to make fire and so on, then those things were always useful and would always help you survive, no matter who you were.

Up until a couple of generations ago almost everyone were either farmers or industrial workers. In such times it was always good to know the basics of farming, or construction, or how to work with common industrial machines. That knowledge was always useful and could give you means to survive.

Today however, the value of our particular intelligence, knowledge and abilities is more a function of the present day and what particular part of society we are in.

If you sit me down in front of a computer and tell me, for instance, to make you a website, construct a database application, or write a program that can help you calculate your taxes, I would seem like an intelligent and knowledgeable person, because I would be able to do that.

But, if you sit me down in front of a table with some needles, thread, scissors and fabric and tell me to sew you a pair of pants, I would not seem intelligent or knowledgeable at all. I probably couldn’t sew a decent pair of pants if my life depended on it.

My skills in computer programming are much more likely to make me a living in this day, in this society, then an ability to sew. Most sewing nowadays is made by automatic machines, since it’s so much cheaper, and only the best tailors can still have a job sewing by hand. On the other hand, just thirty years ago, more sewing was made by hand and there were almost no jobs for someone who can write computer programs.

A couple of generations ago anyone could learn skills when they are young that would last them a lifetime, but today we can be happy if the value of a certain skill lasts a couple of decades.

So, since the value of what we know is a product of the society we live in, and society is quickly changing, it is hard for schools to give us knowledge that is always going to be “worthwhile”. But how does this connect back to my example about my knowledge of slavery in ancient Rome?

Well, what the facts I learned back in those days where highly useless ones about a culture long gone. But the methods of learning facts like that are the same methods I use today when learning about computer programming, when learning facts much more useful for me, today.

How to learn things was what I primarily learned in the early stages of school, and I feel that there is nothing better to learn. That is the one thing of an absolute value we have left in a changing world; the ability to absorb new information, to learn new things and change with the world.

I think about this when I remember how often the less motivated students would ask “What is the use of this information? Why should go around looking up this stuff, learning about something like this? When will it ever be useful to me?”

The teacher always tried to come up with some explanation, but it usually sounded lame. How do you explain the worth of some little bit of information about history or chemistry, or some little used mathematical axiom, to a kid? They tried though, telling us that there will surely be times when we have some use for that information, however unlikely it may seem.

I think we all felt that they were lying, and it didn’t serve to motivate us. I think it would have made a much greater impact if they would have said “Never. You will probably never have any use of this at all. But you will need to be able to look stuff up, to understand how to use science books, encyclopedias and so on, and know how to organize this information, select from it and write it down in an orderly manner. And you need practice in how to memorize important things so the knowledge you need is readily available. Whatever you learn now is just to practice skills like that.”

But of course they didn’t say that. I’m not saying that for instance knowing that the battle of Hastings was in 1066 is worthless information, not at all, but they talked like it was useful, which I can imagine very few circumstances when it would be. That only made us feel like they were playing us for chumps, teaching us useless things and lying about it.

I think it would serve educators well not to forget to point out that the means can be an end in themselves. Tell kids that we don’t always have to learn something that is obviously useful, that we just have to learn how to learn. That learning something just for a test isn’t necessarily bad.

Of course, there are instances when we learn things that will be useful. For instance basic mathematics and languages; those are things that are useful to anyone. I still think learning how to learn is the most important part though. I’ve learned more languages outside of school than in it, but I wouldn’t have been so easily able to if I didn’t learn the basics of it there.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Seriously, what is up with People Using Quotation Marks for Emphasis?

I have to travel a lot by bus, and as most people know that is a pretty lousy way to travel. I have a pretty good back on me, but even my back starts to ache after a few hours in a bus seat. So I was pretty happy when I found that a local bus company offering long distance trips has a sign up that (translated) says:

Travel “comfortably” - travel by bus!

Those quotation marks around “comfortably” were just so right. It felt so nice and entertaining that a bus company would actually acknowledge what an uncomfortable way it is to travel, even if it’s a bad way to advertise your business.

But no, things aren’t that good. A friend of mine pointed out that they probably think that quotation marks can be used to put emphasis on something. I had a hard time believing him, since it seems so unreasonable.

We have very good ways of putting emphasis on things. Setting something in bold, italics or underlining it are all very common, easy and good things to do. Quotation marks are decidedly not a good thing. Quotation marks usually give the exact opposite effect, like in the example with “comfortably” above. So I just can’t figure out why anyone would ever think to use it that way.

Well, turns out people do it anyway.

Here is one example that I stumbled upon. Someone has put up a note on a bulletin board saying:

Please “do not” use staples for posting

And someone has responded with:

Please do not use quotation marks for emphasis.

Then there is this one, with some “threatening” writing on a wall. It says:

I’m gonna “kill you”
Watch your back
Crack Whore

A terribly confusing piece of writing, if you ask me. I can’t figure out what he is going to do, but it doesn’t seem to be any real killing involved at least.

Then of course there’s also an entire blog dedicated to the phenomenon. The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks can be found here.

So, obviously it is very common. Distressingly common even. But even though it can be terribly amusing, or at least terrible and amusing, I fail to see the reason why it happens.

Do any of you readers have any idea why anyone of sane mind would assume that quotation marks can be used in such a way? I can’t figure it out and I’m genuinely curious.

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