December 26, 2009

The plot of James Cameron’s Avatar is not original. It is not even that clever. It’s downright predictable in fact. The “new” is usually overrated. There have been many great treatments of the same story, and Avatar is a masterfully told story. I would be amiss to not talk about the 3D technology, so I will discuss that first.

The new 3D technology is very well used. I caught myself from swatting a fly that was in the way of my view. The 3D is subtle and gorgeous. Simple scenes of actors in from with some action in the background are more realistic. The expansive landscapes of Pandora that define the movie are awe inspiring, just like seeing such landscapes in nature.

While the new views that 3D enables means that it will be here to stay, it is not as paradigm-shifting as the introduction of color or sound. Give it time to mature more, and I feel that it will become more common as it becomes cheaper and more cinemas have the projection technology in place.

While the cinematography is awe-inspiring at times, a film depends on its story. This film is about nature at its heart. The plot is humans are mining unobtanium from Pandora, a world inhabited by the Na’vi people, who are clearly modeled on the Native Americans. Just like the Native Americans, the Na’vi are not happy about their land being destroyed by the mining corporation.

*Possible Spoiler*

The corporation is trying diplomacy via the Avatar program, which enables humans to control manufactured Na’vi bodies. Jake Sully becomes a part of the program, and he slowly comes around to the Na’vi views. The Na’vi worship a nature mother goddess, who is embodied in every living thing.

*End Possible Spoiler*

The Na’vi view on nature is heart wrenching for me. It’s the year 2154, and there is “no green” left on Earth, where as Pandora is so lush with nature that it makes me want to go hiking. The Na’vi live in tune with their environment, and this life seems to be ideal.

There is a certain irony in this film holding up the native life style as an ideal, when this film could never have been realized in such a lifestyle. Similarly, the film is very anti-corporatism, when it is backed by one of the largest studios (Fox), which is in turn part of one of the largest media corporation (Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation empire).

Nevertheless, this movie has made me sit an think about how we interact with nature. I visited my grandmother’s house in rural Missouri today to see what my relatives had done to it. I was taken aback. As a boy, grandma’s had been the most nature I had experienced. I remember seeing all of the stars for the first time there. I remember long walks in the woods and seeing wildlife.

The house was an old farmhouse, but it has been completely redone. It could be my suburban neighbor’s house. I really missed the old house and what it symbolized for me. It was a place without modern conveniences, and now there is internet and cable TV.

I started thinking about all of the features of modern life on the drive home. Obviously, so much of it is unsustainable, but no one will give up their conveniences. Nor would they want to give up the advance medical technology or computers and such. I tried to think of the ideal fabric of society, but I am not nearly smart enough to figure that out in one drive. I’ll have to talk many walks and talk to others about it.

I highly recommend Avatar. See if for the beauty of the nature of Pandora. See it to make you think about nature on Earth. See it for the awe-inspiring cinematographic technique of 3D. See it for a great story.



December 26, 2009

I’ve been neglecting to post my student paper columns. I write one a month, so here is a semester’s worth of them. Sadly, these don’t go very deep as my instructions are to write for students going between classes and reading in class.

Watch Your Step!

There is so much beauty in the world, but we are in such a rush that we pass it by. It seems that most people wish they could get from their dorms to their classes without passing through the intervening space. I used to consider the walk a waste of time that could be made only slightly more productive by calling people. From the looks of it, many students feel that way.

When people walk and talk on the phone, they are not very aware of what is around them. As many driving studies have demonstrated, talking on the phone destroys your situational awareness. This effect does not end when you get out of the car.

This obliviousness to our surroundings is disappointing, especially since Washington University goes to such pains to keep the grounds manicured. Each landscaped flower is carefully arranged and mulched. The newly planted trees hold the promise of becoming large and climbable like the ginkos on the east side of Olin Library. Even the sidewalks are laid out with colorful flagstones lining them. Everything is designed to capture your eye.

With all of this attention to aesthetics, it is surprising that the University has not given much thought to how people are actually getting around campus. For a pedestrian, campus is nice and navigable, with the only glaring error being down in front of Brookings. There, the only direct path from the art school to Whitaker Hall is walking down Hoyt Drive. If you like to walk without worrying about being run over by a car, you must backtrack and go through Brookings Quad.

For bicyclists, getting around campus is awful. Pedestrians clog the sidewalks. Other cyclists are trying to navigate through the torrent of people. All of this means dodging around and going much slower than you would like. For these reasons, most figure that riding to and from class is not worth the effort if one is living on campus.

It is not only inconvenient to have bikes and pedestrians mixing on the sidewalks, but it is also dangerous. Many of us have had the unwelcome experience of a close call. A bike goes whipping by on our right side just as we are turning to the right, or we are biking around a corner just as another bike is rounding it.

It is because of these near accidents that states have relegated bikes to the street. For a center of knowledge, the University can act out of character at times. (For another example, see how dining has changed on the South 40.) A simple yellow line laid down on the sidewalks would be an effective temporary improvement. But consider the aesthetics! That yellow line would not fit in with the planted flowers, the new trees, or the collegiate gothic architecture.

Without ruining the beauty of campus, there must be a way to safely incorporate the growing number of bikes on campus. The best time to lay out paths for pedestrians and bicyclists is the first time, and while that is past for most of the Danforth Campus and the South 40, the new construction should have adequate paths.

Admittedly, the University has bigger fish to fry and will probably never get around to bike paths. So, we pedestrians and bicyclists can make our commute more enjoyable by paying attention to our surroundings. There are many beautiful things in each day that we overlook: from the hue of the sky to the flower growing alongside the path. By actively looking around, we can be safer and find the value in the intervening space between class and home.


Lost in Translation

In my high school, the only teachers who spoke with accents were the foreign language teachers, as they were native speakers of French or Spanish. They had a slight accent but were otherwise fluent in English.

At Wash. U., it is common to have non-native English speakers either as professors or teaching assistants. I remember that my first day of differential equations was mostly spent learning to understand my professor’s accent. It was not difficult, but there was one time when he was saying “indicial equation,” and I kept hearing “initial equation.” That was a little confusing.

Understanding a professor usually only takes getting used to his accent, and then you are able to communicate for the rest of the course. The professor’s English fluency is rarely an issue that leads to misunderstandings or miscommunications.

While most professors are fluent or nearly fluent in English, many graduate students that I have encountered are not. As anyone who has taken a chemistry lab course can tell you, it is a challenge to overcome this language barrier. So why are graduate students permitted to TA a class when they are unable to communicate effectively with students?

Before going any further, I want to say that I am writing this as objectively as possible. By no means do I mean to say that only native speakers of English should be permitted to TA. I am stating that only people able to communicate effectively in English should TA.

I hate to write such a disclaimer, but I know this is a sensitive topic. One of my friends once brought up how glad she was that her TA for organic chemistry lab was American. She was quick to say that it was not because he was American, but it was because she could understand him when he spoke.

Of course the graduate students are working on their English, but letting them TA without being able to perform all of the necessary duties is wasting both the TA’s time and the student’s time. It is akin to going to a restaurant, ordering your food, and getting the wrong food. When you complain to the waitress, she replies that it’s her first day. While that does inspire sympathy, you also have to wonder why the restaurant did not fully train her.

Similarly, when you have a TA who cannot understand most of what you are saying, you have to wonder why the University did not fully train him. You are sympathetic, but it is frustrating to have to repeat and rephrase questions—or, in some cases, switch to writing things down and pointing.

While it is the University’s responsibility to ensure the TAs can effectively communicate, the burden also rests on the TA himself (or herself). He should take the English classes for graduate students that the University offers. He should make an effort to speak only in English except when calling home.

While it is a pleasure to hear a variety of languages spoken on our campus, sometimes undergraduate and graduate students, stereotypically Asians, speak only their native tongue. Since they isolate themselves from all of the English speakers, their English improves very slowly.

If these students were to speak English when they were together, their English would improve. They would be more likely to make multicultural friends and have a better cultural experience of the United States. It also would result in fewer rude situations in which a whole conversation is going on in the room in a language you cannot understand.

In short, the University should make sure that graduate students are proficient in English before allowing them to TA a class. Otherwise, both the TA and the student are in for a frustrating semester of miscommunications. The class material at Wash. U. is hard enough already without added difficulties. We students came here for an excellent education, and if Wash. U. plans to excel, it should revise the TA English proficiency policy.


Recognized Smarts, Unrecognized Privilege

Oftentimes, people mention we are smart because we are at Wash. U.; we attend a university that has the privilege of selecting its students from a large group of applicants. But while admissions does a great job of deciding which applicants to admit from the pool that applies, it often goes unrecognized that for each applicant, there are many equally smart people who did not apply to Wash. U.—or any other college, for that matter.

The American dream is that you can come into this country with nothing, get an education, start a business and a family, and live in comfort all by the sweat of your brow. Those who make it in life do so by their hard work and determination, and, conversely, those who do not make it in life fail by their laziness and lack of ambition.

This American dream is just that: a dream. There are people who live it out, but they always have a story about a break they got: the loan they received that paid for their night school, or the job that they got because of sitting next to a manager on the subway. All of our lives are ruled by chance and circumstance, and we ought to admit it: Many of us are here because we were born into the right families.

In Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, “Nickel and Dimed,” she tries to live out the American dream. She moves to a city where she knows no one and tries to make a life without using her college education, repeating this upheaval several times. The problems she encounters cannot be overcome through working harder, and she must always catch a break in order to be financially solvent. In some cities, she does not even catch a break, and ends up unable to break even despite her hard work.

As Wash. U. students, we worked hard to get here, but we need to stop looking down our noses at people who are not here or did not go to college. Many intelligent people are kept out of college because they need to care for their families or because they cannot afford to pay the tuition—or for any number of other reasons besides a lack of hard work and determination.

Thinking that we are here simply because we worked hard and others are not simply because they didn’t is naïve and should be avoided. We must keep in mind that we have been able to take many things for granted on our road to college: a stable family, enough money to pay bills, good health, and so on. Some of us have not enjoyed one or any of these things, but all of us have had some form of advantage that enables us to be here.

All of this privilege that we have engenders an obligation to give back to the community. Community service is one way to give back. More importantly, once we have graduated and have made a life, we must make sure that we help others to do the same—others who are less fortunate, in the most literal sense, than us. With our intellect and privilege, we will be able to offer them the breaks they need to achieve the American dream.


Oral tradition alive in the classroom

For thousands of years, knowledge was handed down through oral tradition. Younger generations listened to and talked with their elders, who passed down whole books, elaborate rites, rituals and ways of life. It occurred to me that this tradition lives on today in the classroom.

Briefly consider how people have stored and passed along knowledge. First, there was oral tradition. Then the printed word hit the scene, creating a new way of storing and passing down knowledge. The books that used to be memorized were written down and stored, and so later generations could learn without having to interact with the author.

At first, only a few people could read and afford to buy books, but as time went on, people became more literate, and books became cheaper. This diminished the importance of oral tradition.

Similarly, when the Internet became popular, this new way of storing and disseminating knowledge further diminished the importance and use of oral tradition as well as books. Now, few people use a physical encyclopedia; instead we opt simply to look up the topic online. While information is readily available, we are even more disconnected from the source of the information. This separation leads us to be suspicious of the information’s veracity.

While these new forms of disseminating knowledge have become indispensable, oral tradition is far from dead and will never die. We live it every day in the classroom. In every class, the text is merely a supplement to the lecture. Oral tradition is a tried-and-true method of passing along information, and over so many years, our brains have probably become wired to easily process and store what we learn in this manner.

The other strength of learning by talking and listening is that we can ask questions to improve our understanding. You cannot question a book or a page on the Internet, but you can raise your hand in class and get an answer. We can easily tell if we can trust the information by judging who is telling it to us.

This is why correspondence courses and online universities do not work. Without a lecturer to tell you information in an organized and insightful manner, it is much harder to learn the material. Without being able to ask questions, a misprint or ambiguous statement becomes a major stumbling block that you have to look up elsewhere or ask your friends about.

While oral tradition thrives in the classroom, it is not as successful outside of it. While ways of life are still passed down directly from parents to children, the passing down happens less frequently. Very few people know skills that were considered indispensable only a generation or two ago. Every day, fewer and fewer people know how to cook, sew, garden or do laundry.

When they need this knowledge, they look it up online. So, what was once passed on by word of mouth is now written down in texts or online. What was once “common sense” is no longer, and to prevent the knowledge from being lost, it is written down in books and online.

With the introduction of the Kindle and the new wave of tablets coming soon, we will have new schema for information dissemination. But they will never be able to replace the direct transmission of knowledge that is the spoken word. So when we students go to class and ask questions, we learn as nature intended.

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I’m not very proud of these, but I feel that they have some good ideas in most of them, especially the “Lost in Translation” column.