Saturday, October 27, 2007

One-night stands and domain clash

The feeling will be familiar to anyone who has ever reached morning with a one-night stand: a vague, discomforting sensation that something is out of place. This awkwardness is due to the disconcerting collision of two normally distinctly divided worlds, or in other words, the destruction of the behavioral barrier between night and day. When the nocturnal world invades its more well-lit counterpart, the result can feel uncomfortable at the least and frightening at worst. I call it “domain clash.” It is akin to seeing one’s doctor or teacher at the grocery store—suddenly we’re thrust into a situation that feels strange and uncomfortable. Certain things—bars, clubs, loud music—belong in the liberating environment of the night. If you’ve ever been inside your favorite bar outside of its open hours—empty, and with all the lights on—you’ll understand what I mean. It’s as if subconsciously the bar only exists to you in its nighttime state, and seeing it at another time can be jarring and confusing.

It’s common knowledge that people act differently when the sun goes down. This discrepancy in behavior is often explained away as an effect of alcohol, but there is no denying that darkness is conducive to certain transgressive behaviors that most of us are too shy to engage in during the day. The light of daytime exposes our actions to the view and judgment of others, but when the lights go out our actions are hidden under a cloak of anonymity. Few men would dare to grab a girl’s butt if she or others could easily see the culprit, but such a covert copping is easy in a dark and crowded nightclub. If day is the domain of our superego, subject to our internal compass of ethics and social correctness, night is ruled by the id: “I want to do it. I will do it.” After all, memory being a very visual medium, it’s exceedingly difficult to make memories of something we can’t see. Taboos can be broken and mistakes made, but these normally embarrassing acts can largely escape the notice of witnesses, or even their participants.

OK, so back to the one-night stand (with which I have pretty much no experience, FYI). Waking up next to this person feels strange. Generally night-things remain in the night, and day-things remain in the day. Mixing the two is extremely difficult, and it works both ways: it will likely be a while before you sleep over with someone you meet at the park, coffee shop, etc., whereas hanging out with a post-bar/club hook-up during the day feels very awkward to begin with. But overcoming this obstacle—bringing a significant other from one world into another—is a huge step in the progress of a relationship. It is the bridging of these two domains that is the key to revealing one’s entire self to another human being. Keep reading...

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The decline of justice

As a child you’re taught that the police are society’s heroes, solving crimes and chasing down criminals. The men in blue are dedicated to serving their fellow citizens, and no problem is too small for them to handle. Policemen are idolized and apotheosized; they consistently rank among the most admired professionals. Yet the Platonic policeman portrayed in Hollywood, from Andy Griffith to Lennie Briscoe is far from the current reality. The modern municipal police is ill equipped to handle the amount of crime in a major city; homicide and other violent crimes are understandably prioritized, but filing a police report for a robbery (or other crimes involving property damage/loss) is largely a formality.

I was recently the victim of a brazen example of theft by taking, when someone smashed the window of my car and made off with my $2000 Macbook laptop. I immediately called the Atlanta Police Department and reported the crime. The operator said an officer would be on the scene shortly to take the official report. After 45 minutes, I was still waiting. Fortunately I spotted an off-duty APD officer, who, after perfunctorily taking the report, told me I shouldn’t get my hopes up about recovering the computer. Laptop theft being rampant in Atlanta, the police department just couldn’t realistically investigate all the cases. OK, fine. But surely a little old-fashioned gumshoe work could uncover where all the stolen computers are going. After all, above the disorganized mass of thieves there must be someone (a “boss,” if you will) in charge of liquidating the pilfered goods. A criminal operation likely worth hundreds of thousands of dollars per year should not be that difficult to crack. It’s as if the police have been reduced to mere statisticians of non-violent crimes, having thrown in the white towel when it comes to actually solving them. I could almost imagine someone back at police headquarters keeping a tally sheet of the day’s thefts, tossing or shredding incoming reports after counting them. The knowledge that one has no hope of ever seeing his laptop again is quite disheartening, especially when insurance does not cover the loss.

This unfortunate situation in major American cities is in stark contrast to that of China (of all places), where the police are (suspiciously) quick to track down stolen goods. A friend of a friend was recently robbed of his Blackberry on the street during a business trip in Beijing. The police returned it to him the next day. Whether through illicit complicity between the police force and the criminal underground or just good old-fashioned detective work, the Chinese system is much more effective. Keep reading...

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Neutral Faces

Ever wonder what your neutral face looks like? You’ll never see it firsthand, of course, because the moment you try to catch it in a mirror it disappears. Even to capture it in a photograph would be a feat, since our brains, reacting to the presence of the camera, make minute, unconscious changes to our expression. We’ve all got our own individual neutral faces, each nearly as distinctive as our fingerprint. They run the gamut from blissful to bored to angry, and just about every feeling in between. A neutral face is our default expression, the one thatwe wear most often. It’s often the expression that appears when we’re lost in thought, or, more generally, when we are not interacting with something that is stimulating an emotion.

Scientists have attempted to pin down the characteristics of a truly “neutral” face, with varying degrees of success. It seems the judgment of emotion is nearly entirely subjective, since our brains automatically try to assign emotion to a facial expression. The Kuleshov effect, for instance, shows that context plays a large part in assessing the emotional value of an expression. Audiences, when shown an image of an upsetting scene followed in quick succession by a face that is as objectively neutral as possible, imagine emotional distress in the latter picture. Each of us evaluates the emotions of those around us differently; some people, schizophrenics in particular, struggle to identify even basic facial emotions.

A neutral face, like any facial expression, is composed primarily of the eyes and mouth. Some eyes look cold and mean, some warm and inviting. Some of us are born with a bit of a natural smile, while others are unfortunate enough to have an innate sneer. This makes neutral faces quite dangerous, since they are so easy to misinterpret. People with perpetually downcast-looking faces, for example, probably tire of others asking if something is wrong. Nevertheless, it is possible to train oneself to project an “unnatural” neutral face. Some men may use a permanent growl to try to establish an aura of intimidation, while some women are able to radiate sweetness simply by manipulating their face’s ordinary state. In doing so, they are able to, in effect, change their personality, since facial appearance is often the first (though perhaps not the most reliable) indicator of a stranger’s character.

Some character actors make a living off their neutral faces, since the audience so readily accepts them in certain roles due to their perceived persona, as established by their natural facial expression. Paul Giamatti is one who is known for his likeable, Everyman expression—a sort of glum but friendly mien, weary but welcoming. Jack Nicholson is often typecast as an eccentric, mostly because of his perpetually crazed, slightly demonic demeanor (these synonyms for facial expression may seem forced, but I just can’t bring myself to use the same term again and again). Often an actor’s neutral face can work against him, as in the 2006 film Unknown, in which Greg Kinnear is unable to convincingly pull off the role of the tough thug because of his enduring, endearing neutral face.

Facial expression is extremely important in courtship, with both women and men favoring “kind” faces. I am attracted to a particular neutral face: one that is soulful, almost sad-looking, which indicates to me (accurately or not) that the girl has experienced some of the sorrows of the world. This type of expression verifies the reality and humanity of the person behind it. The most gratifying feeling in the world is seeing such an expression turn into a smile, for it seems the greater the disparity between the neutral face and the cheerful face, the more the effect of the ultimate emotion is magnified.

It’s best to be aware of the face we are presenting to the world; an unbecoming neutral face can mean the difference between getting a job or not, hitting it off with the cute guy/girl across the room or getting the cold shoulder. So think neutral and be positive. Keep reading...

Las Vegas: Hate to Love It

Las Vegas is an impossible city. It should not exist. Its very being conflicts with geography as well as general standards of taste and morality. Not only does it exist, it is one of the fastest growing areas in the U.S over the past several years. Is Las Vegas destined to be a latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah, a hedonistic pleasureland doomed to be destroyed by its own success? It is definitely possible. Nonetheless, this oasis of abundance is a hell of a lot of fun, and we should enjoy it while we can.

The City of Sin wears its ignominious title with pride; even the mayor is a supporter of legalized prostitution. Mayor Oscar Goodman was recently quoted as saying “magnificent brothels" could bring the city "tremendous" benefits. The mayor has also invited controversy upon himself by defending mobsters during his legal career, advocating alcohol consumption to fourth graders, and promoting corporal punishment for criminals and misbehaving children. The man is the perfect figurehead for this raging, lawless metropolis: a showy, shoot-from-the-hip character with Wild West ideology.

Everything in Vegas is fake: facades, bluffs, implants. But in trying to be something that it is not, Vegas has become its own unique entity, a city of unabashed artifice. Its very name is an illusion (as are many names of modern southwestern cities), as there is not one vega (meadow) to be found in the vicinity, much less several. Vegas has succeeded in branding itself as a carefree fantasyland with such slogans as “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” a refrain vying with “I love NY” for the most well-known municipal tourism slogan. People come to Vegas to release their inhibitions and give in to their most pent-up desires. It is the original virtual reality, a place that seems to exist outside the real world, which is governed by pesky blue laws, responsibilities, and other unfortunate shackles of life.

No matter how stringently my superego disapproves, it is no match for my impressionable id once it falls victim to the sensual seductions of this Devil’s Paradise. I expected to despise Las Vegas for its crass simulacra of such inimitable cities as Venice, Paris, and New York City, its slavish servitude to hedonism and materialism. Instead, I found myself willingly playing along in the game, taking pictures in front of the meticulously replicated Fontan de Trevia and Eiffel Tower, despite having visited the real McCoy only two years before. I also found the faux shimmering sky above the Venetian bridges a welcome change from typical shopping mall ceilings. You think you’re above it all, but Vegas, the glittering, dizzying array of addictions it is, sucks you right in, the helpless human that you are. Keep reading...

How to Improve Science Education

A professor recently told my class, upon seeing her students’ faces contorted in confusion over the concept of low-angle reverse faults, that it had taken geologists decades to understand the complex tectonic processes that lead to such unusual formations (such faults result in older rock overlying younger rock, which is counter to common sense). I was struck by the honesty and empathy inherent in this statement. Students are typically bombarded with highly conceptual theories that are feats of human imagination and deductive power, and expected to digest and understand these ideas within minutes, days, or weeks at most. Rarely does a professor pause to reassure his puzzled pupils that it is OK not to immediately grasp differential integration or chromosomal variation. Surely professors realize that few students are capable of immediate understanding and retention of difficult material, and surely they do not forget their own undergraduate days, when they, too, struggled with the very same things. But for some reason they all-too-often neglect to address these simple facts, allowing the students to believe they are stupid if they fail to get it. This leads to extreme frustration at best and abandonment of the subject at worst. Were teachers better at conveying empathy and being patient with students, U.S. science education would likely not be in the dangerously frail position it is now. Keep reading...

Facebook and the VA Tech shooting

This week we are seeing for the first time the full power of the internet and, more specifically, Facebook, as a means of instant communication, commentary, and community for Generation Y. The internet age has seen its fair share of tragedies (September 11 and Katrina are probably the most notable examples to U.S. citizens), but none has been felt so personally and extensively by the generation that is most web savvy as that which occurred at Virginia Tech yesterday. The reactions to the massacre were fast and furious. Since cell phone coverage was spotty due to the overwhelming number of relatives and students trying to get in touch, many resorted to the web to reach each other. Facebook (and MySpace, to a lesser extent) served as fast, reliable ways for VT students to notify outsiders of their safety. At the same time, students across the country logged on en masse to learn the latest news and share their thoughts on the tragedy.

Wikipedia, the online, open-source (meaning it can be edited by the public) encyclopedia had an article on the perpetrator, Cho Seung-hui, even before traditional news outlets had publicized his identity. The main Wikipedia article for the shooting was filled with details covering every aspect of the story, from the names of the victims to a timeline of the day’s events. The page cited nearly 100 sources for its content, legitimizing the site as an accurate and thorough resource for information.

Browsing through pages on Facebook (the most popular website among college students and the sixth most-trafficked site on the internet) provides a clear indication of the zeitgeist of the national university community. As of midday Tuesday hundreds of groups had been formed on Facebook, most in a show of collegial solidarity with the Hokie community and in remembrance of the victims, but others containing more controversial messages. A search for Cho’s name only one hour after his name was released revealed no profile for him (whether it existed prior to yesterday is unknown), but over 40 groups “dedicated” to him, the vast majority using obscene and generally unprintable language to condemn him for his actions. Groups such as “Blame Cho Seung-Hui (VT Shooter)” and “Cho Seung-Hui: Fuel Peace with your words, not anger” represent two takes on the tragedy. The largest of these groups had over 6000 members by Tuesday afternoon.

Some students, however, sought to initiate a dialogue about society’s role in Cho’s desperate crime, attributing blame to such factors as America’s gun culture and the alienation of minority students at largely homogenous universities. The message boards for the groups quickly filled with discussion about who or what is to blame, as well as how people are reacting and memorializing the now-notorious day. Several students formed groups to address the racial issues likely to arise, imploring their peers not to judge the entire Asian community based on the horrific deeds of one individual. There even developed meta-discussion about the meaning of the groups themselves, with some people criticizing their creators for giving Cho the supposed satisfaction of widespread fame and attention.

Countless students have even temporarily adopted as their profile picture some version of a modified Virginia Tech logo, either with a black ribbon behind it or paired with the logo of their own school and the phrase “Today, we all are Hokies.” The originator of this viral show of unity remains anonymous, but his design has swept across Facebook with amazing speed.

Other websites also played an important role in disseminating information and providing a forum for discussion. YouTube, a website rivaling Facebook in its popularity with students, had half a dozen videos related to the shooting in its daily top 20 most-viewed list, including a firsthand cellphone camera recording by a VT student of shots being fired. The student is said to have signed a deal with CNN for exclusive rights to his video, but exclusivity does not last long in today’s generally lawless virtual universe, due in part to the frequent disregard for old media rules and computer skills of modern youth.

April 16, 2007 will no doubt go down in as one of the most gruesome days in American history, and the American people will hopefully emerge with both a better awareness for stopping future tragedies before they happen, as well as better strategies for administrative reactions should similar situations occur again. But the day will also likely become a watershed moment in the psyche of Generation Y, showing them not only the potential they have to influence the lives of others, but the ever-growing importance of the internet as a source of knowledge, comfort, and catharsis. Keep reading...

Neja Vu

I believe I may have just coined a phrase...I've googled it and come up with zero results. The phrase is "neja vu," which describes the feeling of seeing something that you have never seen before. Has this ever happened to anyone else? One example of when it has happened to me is when I saw a pick-up truck passing by with a college-aged white male in the driver's seat and a middle-aged black male in the passenger's seat. I had never before seen that particular driver-passenger combo. The statistical odds of it happening are not all that low (given the number of 17-23 year old white males and 40-50 year old black males in the country), but I would imagine the practical odds to be quite low (given the vastly different social groups these two men would occupy).

I began to wonder exactly how they came to be in the same vehicle, postulating possible scenarios in my head. Each scenario I created seemed implausible in some way, or reflected an embarrassing, subconscious stereotype that I held. One possible situation I though of was that the white guy was giving a stranger a ride. This situation is particularly ironic, for it presumes the black man lacked a car, while at the same time accepts the unlikely situation that an average UGA student would provide a ride to a total stranger, not to mention one of a different race. Thus the scenario encompasses one stereotype, while at the same time rejecting another, leading to its implausibility. It is one strange paradoxical circle of logic (if that makes any sense).

This train of thought led me to dream up even more improbable carpooling couples, such as an elderly Asian woman and a young black male (I challenge you to think of a good back-story for that one!). I also began considering the most common driving partners (around UGA), the vast majority being white male/white male and white female/white female. "Bisexual" driving partners are also common, but it certainly seems to be the norm to drive with someone of the same sex. If one were to see a boy and a girl driving in a car together, one would likely assume them to be a romantic couple, a conclusion that reflects the societal status such an arrangement signals. But I digress. Anyway, keep an eye out for neja can really make life interesting. Keep reading...

Grammar Gripe

As someone who considers copy-editing one of life's little pleasures, and a strict adherence to the rules of grammar a worthy and admirable pursuit, I am dismayed by the disdain to which I and my partners in punctuation punctiliousness are subjected by the less fastidious general public. The pejorative nature of the epithets we have willingly adopted are proof enough of the position in society we hold: linguistic pariahs, bothersome prescriptivists stuck in a bygone era when people actually knew that you don't "try and" do something, you try to do it. We are referred to as grammar whores and grammar nazis, both of which comparisons demonstrate the audacity (and neologistic creativity) of those who view the steadfast insistence on linguistic exactness as a fool's errand. I take umbrage at the idea that my desire for a world with communication standards is the least bit comparable to the Germans' (former) desire for a world with racial standards.

I do, however, realize that modern society presents many situations (text messaging and chatting casually with friends, for example) in which exhibiting proper usage, punctuation, and even spelling would be looked upon as supercilious and unnecessary. To require grammatical perfection at all times would be a senseless and wholly unachievable goal. But we have a duty to pay attention to the way we use language on more formal occasions; English is a living organism, and we are its caretaker. Clarity of communication is crucial; linguistic mistakes can lose jobs, offend friends, even start wars. Language binds us together, and its abuse can rend us apart.

Of course, as long as grammar fanatics are in the minority, we will need a term of reference. I propose either "grammar guards" or "grammar guardians," as both better reflect our true role in society than the names mentioned above. It is my hope, however, that we will all be grammar guards one day, eliminating the need for the term altogether. Keep reading...