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Friday, Apr 4, 2008

I found this NYT op-ed, by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, about strengthening one’s willpower incredibly creepy. Mainly, the experiments used to test willpower seem strange, obliquely laden with all sorts of ideological assumptions about what takes will and what doesn’t:


In one pioneering study, some people were asked to eat radishes while others received freshly baked chocolate chip cookies before trying to solve an impossible puzzle. The radish-eaters abandoned the puzzle in eight minutes on average, working less than half as long as people who got cookies or those who were excused from eating radishes. Similarly, people who were asked to circle every “e” on a page of text then showed less persistence in watching a video of an unchanging table and wall.


Who is signing up for these studies? Can they be considered representative if they volunteer for this sort of thing? Does it require willpower to do a pointless task a scientist demands of you? Isn’t personal incentive important in this context, or is the thrust of the study to suggest that willpower is most needed when a person is unmotivated, indifferent—that will has precisely to do with doing the tasks society demands?


That seems backward to me; I lack will precisely with the things that are important to me and threaten the possibility of deep-rooted failure, at the core level of my aspirations. If I failed to circle some e’s, what difference would that make? Willpower seems to me something that can’t be observed in a laboratory and could probably only be studied through a proxy, something like completing a dissertation or running marathons. But even then, the definition of willpower is problematic. Is it the will to resist temptation, or the will to complete unpleasant tasks, or the will to overcome obstacles presented by the wills of other people?


This semantic confusion leads to crazy sounding recommendations like this, where incomparable goals are all jumbled together as if they are all notions to be plugged into an algebraic equation: “In the short term, you should spend your limited willpower budget wisely. For example, if you do not want to drink too much at a party, then on the way to the festivities, you should not deplete your willpower by window shopping for items you cannot afford. Taking an alternative route to avoid passing the store would be a better strategy. On the other hand, if you need to study for a big exam, it might be smart to let the housecleaning slide to conserve your willpower for the more important job. Similarly, it can be counterproductive to work toward multiple goals at the same time if your willpower cannot cover all the efforts that are required. Concentrating your effort on one or at most a few goals at a time increases the odds of success.”


Making goals into arbitrary variables is perhaps the purpose of framing philosophical ideas in this cryptoscientific fashion. The quotation reveals what seems to be the underlying consequence of research like this, to reify willpower, to change it from an active mental process to a commodity, something you stockpile and count. Only then can it be seen as an activity rather than an inert substance. It is troped as fitness, which is the biochemical correlative of consumerism: “Like a muscle, willpower seems to become stronger with use. The idea of exercising willpower is seen in military boot camp, where recruits are trained to overcome one challenge after another.”


How long will it be before someone monetizes this particular finding? “Weak-kneed and irresolute? Send your brain to boot camp! 50 Willpower Exercises to Transform Your Life and Bring Out the Determined YOU!”
1. Circle every e in the metro section of The New York Times. Why? To concentrate, silly!
2. Eat nothing but radishes for lunch. Yes, it’s icky, but how else will you develop the mental fortitude you need for the important tasks in life, like dieting?
3. Force yourself to look at page after page of shoes on Zappos, but wait, here’s the thing: Don’t buy any! It’s weird, I know, but then you will have the determination to buy only the shoes you really need.
4. Brush your teeth with your left hand (or your right if you’re a southpaw!). That will teach you to be determined about the really important things.


You get the idea. Maybe they can have mental gymnasiums where you can pay for the privilege of doing pointless things for a few hours. Make into an exclusive status product (make it expensive and have eligibility requirements) and it can really take off.


The will was once regarded as the essence of a person’s soul—“free will” reputedly had a lot of theological import at one time. One’s will was valuable for its own sake, as the mark of someone who had achieved some kind of self-determination, a purpose in life. Now, apparently, the will is to be regarded as just another resource, to be hoarded for special occasions—a big exam or when you need to turn down chocolate. Now I am going to see if I can muster up the determination to read the rest of the paper. Too bad all the e‘s are blotted out.


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Friday, Apr 4, 2008
by PopMatters Staff
Jenny Owen Youngs loves the Beach Boys and Bach and can play flip cup like a pro.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Hmm… I definitely remember crying during the Simpsons movie. I am most likely to cry during any episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition... and that’s not a joke.


2. The fictional character most like you?
I don’t know how to answer, unless of course we are all not real, but rather characters in a novel that’s being written RIGHT NOW… in which case the answer would be me.


3. The greatest album, ever?
The Beatles: Revolver. Or, The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds. Or, Kate Bush: The Dreaming.


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Firefly, thank you.


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Thursday, Apr 3, 2008

The mystery of the overpriced textbook solved
If you’ve ever questioned just how your college textbook bill tops $500+ each and every semester, check out Greg Eichten’s report at The Winonan. Eichten comments on a presentation by bookstore owner Chris Livingston on the high cost of text books.



In order to compete with used books, publishers employ tactics such as turning out several editions of a textbook that are only slightly altered, including websites and DVDs to accompany the textbooks, and printing smaller quantities of books on a need basis. All of these factors contribute to increased cost.


The article also offers a breakdown on just where that $100-a-book goes. How much does the author get, the publisher, the bookstore? I often wonder why students don’t revolt over book prices. This article makes the argument that students resist complaining because they know the books are so beneficial to their education. But what if you simply can’t afford them? I remember when I completed my MA, the textbooks were so far our of my price range that I was forced to use Amazon’s “search inside” tool for much of my research. It worked, opened the door to many other works not available in store, and barely cost a dime.


Student seeks books
Or there’s this idea… Check out this great bit about Mount Shasta students and their novel way of sourcing school texts. Mitchell Nesheim is the mastermind behind Books for Bears. The gist is this: Mitchell sends out a list of sought-after school texts (Jack London, Emily Bronte, etc) and if you happen to have the listed books on your shelf at home gathering dust, he asks that you donate them to the school. That way, libraries will be stocked and students won’t need waiting lists to get their reading done. Do it!


John Krasinski

John Krasinski


Adapting David Foster Wallace
Office star John Krasinski talks to the New York Times about his efforts adapting David Foster Wallace’s story “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”:


I know there are way bigger David Foster Wallace fans, but I found “Brief Interviews” at a time where I was expanding my brain in any way I could, and he was just one of the authors that really rocked things for me. I’m still reading all his stuff and still trying to understand him better and better, because it takes a long time.


Buy books from your phone
Amazon thinks of everything. First the Kindle, now TextBuyIt, which allows you to search for and buy books on your cell phone. The AC reports:


You can search by name or by using the products UPC code. Amazon will then send you a text back with information on the product, and its price. You then text back a reply. If you decide to purchase the item, Amazon.com will send an automated telephone call to your cell phone to give you full details on your Amazon purchase and let you confirm your order. This all takes place from the convenience and comfort of your cell phone.


Apparently, the benefits here are convenience and easy price-sourcing. If you’re wandering a bookstore and see something you like, just get on your phone and find out if Amazon offers it cheaper. That’s great, but I’m starting to think Amazon is an invention away from taking over the world.


Cycling author dies
Eugene A. Slaone, author of The Complete Book of Bicycling, has died. The Chicago Tribune looks back:


[Sloane’s book] come out in 1970. Covering everything from how to buy a bicycle to detailed explanations on maintenance and repair, it filled a void and caught on quickly with an American public just starting to embrace bikes in large numbers.


And finally…
Remember Bookworms with Ink? Well, one of the contributors there, LasciviousL, has posted his/her new tattoo, and it’s just gorgeous. Look at “State O’Maine”, from John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire, here.


 


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Thursday, Apr 3, 2008


For the weekend beginning 4 April, here are the films in focus:


Shine a Light [rating: 7]


Shine a Light does deliver in a way few concert films can - especially given the timeless talents on display.


Who, exactly, are the Rolling Stones circa 2008? Considering that it’s been 45 plus years since Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, and Brian Jones played ballsy blues badboys to the Beatles scrubbed and sanitized pop laureates, one has to challenge where a group of aging 60-plus-year-olds fit within the modern mainstream music scheme. Granted, they are legends, myths making noise long after many thought them relevant. True, it takes an intense amount of chutzpah to step on stage and endlessly recreate your greatest hits from three decades past while hoping to work in a few of your current composition. It’s a concept that’s bested other icons - David Bowie, for one - and yet the artists formerly known as the greatest rock and roll band of all time continue to soldier on. read full review…


Leatherheads [rating: 6]


You’ve got to give Clooney credit for trying, especially when most of Leatherheads is a jaunty, jazz age dream.


The media just loves to fawn over George Clooney. With his combination of classic Hollywood charisma and contemporary self-effacing nerve, he tends to enhance, and sometimes overwhelm, the projects he touches. From his early, ineffectual work in films like One Fine Day, to the critical acclaim accompanying his turns with the Coens, he’s a student of the old studio system as well as a jester in his own idiosyncratic kingdom of considered cool. But what’s most fascinating about this man’s career is not his rise to mainstream prominence. Instead, his unique turns behind the camera - Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night and Good Luck - indicate an artist willing to bend tradition in order to place his own unique stamp on cinema. His latest effort, the attempted screwball comedy Leatherheads, is no different. read full review…


Nim’s Island [rating: 6]


Nim’s Island is all too insular, lost in its own unique universe somewhere between Swiss Family Robinson and Joe vs. the Volcano.


It’s becoming painfully obvious that modern moviemakers know nothing about making a true family film. Not just a movie aimed at a certain unsullied demographic, but an effort that sparks the imagination of anyone from ages eight to eighty. The latest attempt at finding the right formula is the undeniably uneven Nim’s Island. As a work of whimsy and wonder, it offers too many unexplainable elements. We never fully grasp the reality - or unreality - of the situations we see. On the other hand, there are parts and performances here that illustrate the direction such a project could take, especially when not guided by studio pressures or focus group interference. read full review…


Under the Same Moon [rating: 5]


Maudlin and melodramatic when it doesn’t need to be, but insightful and engaging when it counts, Under the Same Moon represents both the best and worst of the revelatory road trip narrative.


The story of America’s immigrant past has been well documented by the motion picture. From the boat trips across the ocean to Ellis Island and the accompanying acclamation, our heritage has made for some memorable film. Yet it seems strange that the current migrant situation, dealing with undocumented workers and border crossing illegals gets short shrift. Part of the problem is politics. No one is eager to foist the problems of an already marginalized population on an uncaring and unforgiving public. The other issue is creative. Few artists have attempted to capture this element of the immigrant experience. While it stereotypes several of the circumstances surrounding a Mexican mother and son’s day-to-day struggles, La Misma Luna - in English, Under the Same Moon - does a decent job of showcasing their specific plight. read full review…


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Thursday, Apr 3, 2008


The story of America’s immigrant past has been well documented by the motion picture. From the boat trips across the ocean to Ellis Island and the accompanying acclamation, our heritage has made for some memorable film. Yet it seems strange that the current migrant situation, dealing with undocumented workers and border crossing illegals gets short shrift. Part of the problem is politics. No one is eager to foist the problems of an already marginalized population on an uncaring and unforgiving public. The other issue is creative. Few artists have attempted to capture this element of the immigrant experience. While it stereotypes several of the circumstances surrounding a Mexican mother and son’s day-to-day struggles, La Misma Luna - in English, Under the Same Moon - does a decent job of showcasing their specific plight.


When his grandmother dies, little Carlitos is determined to be reunited with his mother, Rosario. The only problem is, she’s across the border in Los Angeles, working a pair of jobs to earn enough money to bring her son over. Of course, she’s an illegal, and is afraid to ruffle feathers less she finds herself deported. While her best friend Alicia wants her to marry a man with a green card (or better yet, an actual citizen), Rosario hopes that she can work things out without lowering her personal standards. Still, a local security guard named Enrique manages to catch her eye. Meanwhile, Carlitos tries to get local ‘coyote’ Dona Carmen to get him across. Instead, he gets smuggled by a couple of well-meaning but bumbling Americans. Thus begins a journey cross country to find the only family he has left.


Maudlin and melodramatic when it doesn’t need to be, but insightful and engaging when it counts, Under the Same Moon represents both the best and worst of the revelatory road trip narrative. Director Patricia Riggen mines this material for as many colorful characters and recognizable circumstances as possible, yet just when she needs to rise above the familiar formulas, the clichés undercut our sympathy. We need to identify with these people, to be considerate of their needs and attentive to their dreams - especially since many of the plot points put unfortunate individuals in horrible predicaments. But since Riggen resorts to obvious emotional tugs, we spend more time rolling our eyes than wiping them.


The biggest foul committed by Under the Same Moon though is asking us to believe that a little boy of incredibly limited means and resources could manage to make it from Texas to California without raising a single suspicion. Instead, screenwriter Ligiah Villalobos provides a series of chary coincidences - dim bulb border patrols, easy to breach impound fencing, paternalistic strangers - that help keep the journey from jerking to a halt. We never completely believe in these manipulations, just as we don’t feel the terror when Carlitos is literally sold to a pedophile so a dope fiend can get a fix. It all feels scripted and control by forces outside of reality. While Riggen manages some moments of true authenticity, they are few and far between.


Thankfully, the acting tends to overcome these particular problems, especially when it comes to our main characters. While her problems are practically Herculean, Kate Del Castillo delivers a nicely nuanced turn as Rosario. She seems ridiculously obsessed with ethos - she’s pretty enough to be anyone’s border bride without lowering herself - but when push comes to shove, there’s a fire in her eyes that keeps us interested. Similarly, Adrian Alonso avoids many of the child performer mistakes, delivering an organic, unforced portrait of Carlitos’ little boy lost. Though there are times when Riggen gets him mugging for extra pathos, he has a naturalistic quality that keeps things from going too far overboard.


In fact, if one had to balance the effectiveness of the leads with the storyline they’re stuck in, Under the Same Moon stands as a draw. It doesn’t find the easy gravitas a tale like this could legitimately generate, yet at the same time, we feel compelled to follow things through to the end. Rosario’s determination, matched by her son’s own spirit, provides enough of a catalyst to carry us beyond the problems and the pigeonholing. For every event that feels lifted directly out of Villalobos’ laptop, there’s a scene that resonates as powerful and commanding. It all makes Under the Same Moon a difficult film to embrace. It also makes it a hard movie to ignore.


As a result, Riggen simply piles on the predicaments. There’s a wistful quality to the backdrops, an attempt to showcase the issues surrounding illegal immigration through out of the way places and underground avenues. Carlitos ends up in several places that look like leftovers from a post-apocalyptic wasteland, illustrating that many a migrant exists far outside the center of society. Had the story centered on these fascinating fringe elements, Under the Same Moon would be amazing. Instead, it asks us to accept a lot without making good on its myriad of promises. On one level, it’s great to see the contemporary experience of these misplaced and marginalized people expressed so. Then again, such a compelling story should have been much, much better.



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