Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Rocks in the Head.

We had our second Geology exam on Monday. I studied like a motherfucker, memorized all the really arcane stuff that I figured would show up on the test -- most of it did -- and I got a 98. Not bad, and it makes up for the 88 I got on the last one. Still, I'm not satisfied. I missed one question. It was the last question on the test, and here's how it went: "Hydrothermal water is _____." Multiple choice, two options are obviously incorrect. The other two are: "B. groundwater heated by contact with a magma." and "D. any heated water (e.g., your water heater)."

Notwithstanding the shaky grammar, both of these are correct. I know this as soon as I read it. What's going through my head while I'm trying to decide which little bubble to fill in with my #2 pencil is: "Hydrothermal means hot water. That's what the word means. I don't know for a fact that this word is used in other contexts, but I know that hydro means water and thermal means heat. I also know that, in our class discussion of the hydrosphere, hydrothermal water was mentioned in the context of groundwater making contact with magma and producing steam. So I imagine, in the filed of geology, this is how the expression is used. Since they're both right, which answer does he want? Am I to consider the larger picture? Or should I narrow my thinking to only include the concerns of a geologist? I finally went with D because I couldn't get around the fact that it is the more correct answer, and I hate second-guessing. I should have known that he wanted B.

I'm not sure what to take from this. Even on the surface, it's annoying because it's a trick question -- I don't know how else to see it. But if you're going to write a trick question, the decoy answer should be in some way incorrect, shouldn't it? I even looked up hydrothermal when I got home, and the first definition is "Of or pertaining to hot water." The second definition is "Geology. Of or relating to hot magmatic emissions rich in water."

Isn't the point of a university education to broaden our minds, not narrow them? I feel like I'm being asked to act as if I know less than I know. Maybe that's the point. Don't assume anything.

J gave me some perspective when I was complaining about this to him. He said, "Well, if you were taking a Spanish exam and you came across a word that could also be Italian but mean something different from what it means in Spanish, you'd go with the Spanish meaning, right?" I guess I would.

Anyway, how can you be worried about a stupid Geology class when there's Spade Cooley?

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The So-Called Koolaid.

I hear and read criticism of these pro-Obama music videos, some of it critical of the suggestion of celebrity worship (as in, "the beautiful people love Obama, you should too") or just the generally worshipful tone, the chants, etc. But most of the negative comments I've read have boiled down to something along the lines of "they're creepy."

These videos, as well as Obama's best speeches, have the whiff of the evangelical, and god knows we're scared -- and sick and tired -- of that. Obama has been called a "movement politician" as opposed to a party politician, and movements share characteristics with cults, one of the most obvious being that they attract the dissatisfied. And movements often, like cults, grow around charismatic leaders.

Is the president supposed to be a charismatic leader or a competent manager? Well, both -- but I think the charismatic leader is the more important function. (There's no way a president can really be the CEO of the federal government. The executive bureaucracy is too big and unwieldy, much of it is not accountable to the president, and the president doesn't have a lot of say in its organization. The president can't "make" the various offices and bureaus go along with his ideas. But they'll go along with him if they have a good feeling about him, if they like him. Not to mention the legislative branch of government, which is constitutionally outside of the president's authority but usually ready to help a popular president with his legislative agenda.)

Still, I think most of the negative reaction to these videos is no more interesting or complicated than a distrust of anything that provokes an emotional response. The head vs. heart debate. Music and images are very good at disarming us. When something makes us cry or feel sad or excited, we're out of control, at least for that moment in between our reaction and our response. It's hard to argue with tears.

These videos are so moving because they evoke that paradoxical American feeling which is a mix of deep sadness and shame (the feeling we feel when we learn about slavery, or the extermination of the Indians, or mountaintop removal, or Mexicans dying in the desert, or Iraq) with the optimism and pride we feel knowing that, in America -- though it's not always strictly true, and it's certainly not true equally for all people -- if you work hard you can succeed. And they remind us of how some problems that seem unmanageably huge, like racism, boil down to the simplest thing: changing how you feel. Music can do that, it does it easily and it does it all the time -- it changes how you feel.

In the end, all of the above is over-thinking it. The people making these videos are artists. They are famous, and their particular skill is emotional persuasion. Those are the two things they bring to the effort to promote Obama. They're doing what they do.