Word-a-day anger in the American Midwest

January 26, 2009

FROM JASON’S LACK OF IGNORANCE — I am going to rant a little bit about people who are willfully stupid.

A co-worker of mine has been trying to expand his vocabulary by having a word-of-the-day sent straight to his phone, and I give him kudos for the attempt at self-improvement. A couple of weeks ago, though, he decided to see whether I  could define “ossuary” (a repository for skeletal remains), and I could not comprehend why he became so angry when I tossed out the answer in an off-handed way without much thought.

He’s brought me a new word each day since, hoping to stump me and getting more irate each time I give the correct definition. It was not the reaction I expected. Competitive, maybe… but actually furious?

I tried to head off his growing head of steam today after nailing “mimetics,” explaining for the fifth time that I’ve got a BA in English. After all, I’m still paying down on the $68,000 I paid to learn those words, I told him.

It didn’t calm him down.

His attitude is frightening. This is a guy — an adult — who finds affront at the very knowledge he is seeking to gain. I could not grasp his outrage that I would simply hold a piece of information.

I tried soothing him by explaining how I pick apart the roots of the word to discover how the word works, first stripping away prefixes and suffixes and then thinking about the (usually) Latin or Greek at the heart. That didn’t work.

I tried to water it down by telling him that “mimetics” is really close to “mime” and “mimeograph.” That didn’t work either.

This is a man who never seized on the idea that you could actually apply the information Mr. Harrigan taught in seventh-grade English, or that anyone could have enjoyed doing so. He refuses to believe anyone would pay attention all those years ago, or care to keep all that “useless book learnin'” locked away and ready to access.

He cannot see the attractiveness of routinely flipping to the Discovery Channel for a quick documentary on the pyramids at Giza or how coral reefs form, or that such a thing to me is as fun as a beer and a football game.

This is a man for whom learning is torture, something to be avoided unless it comes in the near-painless dose of a text message once a day. I just don’t understand that mindset — anything more is unacceptable. I tried imagining what it would be like to be incurious, and I was horrified.

This is the blatant and god-fearing anti-intellectualism of the American Midwest. People here aren’t afraid of the unknown; they embrace it. They’ve been taught that mysticism is good, that their lord is in heaven and in control, and I’ve observed that that kind of spiritual dependence extinguishes the burning need to know more.

These are people afraid to speak precisely for the fear of being labeled “gay.” They avoid interest for fear of being “nerdy.” They refuse to exercise their minds so their friends don’t see them as “stuck up.”

This is why Paul Blart: Mall Cop is number one in the box office. It is why I weep for the future and pit myself so defiantly against the trusting apathy of theism. It is why I am forming a habit of buying neat books I hope will hook the children my wife and I will someday have.

My mother had a very limited education, but she made a decision early to make sure I had easy access to books about outer space, life under the oceans’ surface, and the peoples of far-away lands. It worked. There but for the grace of Mom go I.

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Are you smart? A love for ‘Jeopardy!’ is mandatory

January 7, 2009

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

FROM JASON’S CHANNEL 5 — What is the Chang Jiang River? What is Zorba the Greek? Who was Jose de San Martin? What is the square of the hypotenuse?

I think, looking back, that it’s very possible I learned more from Alex Trebek than any other single teacher through high school. The man shotgunned bullets of information into my head, one every 10 seconds or so, 22 minutes a night, five nights a week, for most of my formative years.

Watching Jeopardy! wasn’t exactly mandatory in my house, but there was rarely a reason good enough to miss it (until I started to notice boobs) or the competition it brought into my living room. Ever since I was able to read, I wanted to soak up information. I pored over the Golden Treasury of Knowledge and  a used Encyclopedia Britannica set found at a yard sale.

Those heavy volumes opened my mind early to how to receive and retain information — so I was ready for Jeopardy!’s perfectly empirical, entirely apolitical, soundbite-sized lessons on everything.

The reason I bring this up is that I recently discovered my friends in England, the Continent, and Australia have never seen Jeopardy!.

This blew my mind. It’s a core part of my education, a nightly ritual, and an infallible father figure (in Trebek, although you could say he’s not perfect because he’s Canadian — that dig is for you, Kevin). This is a show that started in 1964, running continuously in its present format for 25 years come September 2009.

Finally, I found an American product I’m proud to export to the rest of the world.

Now, there are some out there who would insist watching Jeopardy! is a geriatric pastime. That is just not true, and I think it’s based solely on the 7 or 7:30 p.m. time slot in which it runs in most markets. But if you can get past the Geritol and Polydent commercials to the meat of the show, you’ll see that if you are to rank anywhere above “Invertibrate” on the Jason Scale of Relative Intelligence, then you need to love Jeopardy!.

What I like best about the program is it’s pacing. Unlike every other game show ever aired, its success lies in the rapid-fire format, the complete opposite of quiz-the-idiot shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

I never got the feeling that I was actually playing along with Wheel of Fortune because the contestants refused to call the letters I would scream at the television. With Jeopardy!, the contestant’s success is irrelevant; it’s all about whether I get the right answer. And that benchmark can be measured every few seconds.

I also like that it’s a pure meritocracy. You either know the answers or you don’t, and you are awarded dollars based on skill, not blind chance. Three people compete; one of them is the best not because of the spin of a wheel but because they are interested in the world around them.

If that doesn’t appeal to you, then I have to say we have very different value systems.

So this is my appeal to you, non-American, non-Canadian readers: Be my friend. Prove it by watching the old-ish epidode I’ve posted before. Become a trivia-phile. Love the Trebek like you would love the Shatner. Show me how much you love to learn for learning’s sake. Be awesome.


Fireworks and a ‘history’ lesson

July 4, 2008

FROM JASON’S TIME CARD — You know what’s cool? I got to “cover” my city’s annual fireworks display last night. It was a fluff assignment, and a welcome break from shootings, stabbings, and fiery deaths I’ve been handling lately.

Even better: While I was hanging out with my photographer near the fireworks launch site, I overheard the following (and very edutaining) conversation:

“Grandpa, why do we have fireworks?” asked a sandy-haired young boy who looked about 8 or 9 years old.

Grandpa never batted an eye. There was no ironic smile. Completely convinced of his historical accuracy, Grandpa learnedly replied, “Because in 1774, the British gave American independence and they celebrated with fireworks.”

Hail, the American public education system.


Forumites: Election ’08 for Morons #2

June 3, 2008

Sadly, Hillary Clinton has been judged during this election on her personality. Everyone I talk to goes the route of, “She’s such a bitch. I can’t imagine her being president.”

There’s something to be said for presidential dignity and reserve, but not at the cost of ignoring a candidate’s platform. I think a lot of die-hard righters would be surprised how conservative Clinton is on many issues — even those big social ones — even though she manages to stay extremely leftist on others. It surprised me to no end when she voted to support the gay marriage amendment. She’s also famously refused to apologize for her vote authorizing the Iraq War.

The result, I suppose, is that she has a wishy-washy, “I’m trying to appeal to every demographic” image, and it’s not doing her much good. She really wants to regain ground with that Protestant base playing the middle, and her values-based pandering to the middle class shows it.

As a note, I came within a hair’s-breadth of voting for Clinton in the primary, until about a five-hour research session (mostly at On The Issues) swayed me away from her platform.

Again, for clarification, all of the quotes are real. Nothing is made up. She said these things.


Does being the economic superpower excuse American self-interest?

March 14, 2008

gdp1.jpg
Click to embiggen.

FROM JASON’S SHREDDED NATIONALISM — This depiction of the US appeared a while ago on the Strange Maps blog, but I colored it in Photoshop and I feel that gives me the right to resurrect it. The map labels states with the names of nations that have similar economic output and I find it fascinating.

Not long ago, a Canadian friend of mine referenced this map and asked whether the data excuses Americans for “being so self-interested… It certainly explains a bit, and makes the rest of us feel a bit small,” he wrote. I’ve been beating that question around in my mind for the past three days and doing stupid amounts of research to satisfy my curiosity.

Let’s deal with the premise first. Americans are self-interested. I’ve complained before about Americans’ xenophobia and ignorance of geography. A survey by the Rand Corporation shows only 14 percent of respondents could give a rough estimate of the global population (about 6 billion people at the time). Only 6 in 10 Americans ages 18 to 24 could find Iraq on a map of the Middle East, a 2006 study by National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs found.

The Pew Research Center said last year that 68 percent of Americans know the US has a trade deficit, but only 32 percent knew that Sunni was a branch of Islam. The best educated Americans got their primary news from The Daily Show, that report said. Another non-partisan research group, Public Agenda, found that most Americans did not know who Yasser Arafat was, and the Harris Poll Group had 57 percent of respondents say they “dislike learning about political issues in other countries.”

Still not convinced? Watch Rick Mercer have his way with clueless Americans (including then-governor Mike Huckabee) on Canada’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes:

So back to my Canadian friend’s question — is that American ignorance justified by our economic superiority? Call it childish if you must, but Andre the Giant’s line from The Princess Bride kept ringing in my head as I thought about it: “It’s not my fault I’m the biggest and strongest. I don’t even exercise.”

We are the biggest and strongest, at least as an individual nation. Take a look at Gross Domestic Product information for some of the most advanced countries via the CIA World Factbook:


GDP by purchasing power
US – $13.86 trillion
China – $7.43 trillion
Japan – $4.35 trillion
Germany – $2.83 trillion
United Kingdom – $2.15 trillion
France – $2.07 trillion
Italy – $1.8 trillion
Russia – $2.08 trillion
India – $2.97 trillion
Canada – $1.27 trillion
Australia – $766.8 billion
GDP per capita
US – $46,000
China – $5,300
Japan – $33,800
Germany – $34,400
United Kingdom – $35,300
France – $33,800
Italy – $31,000
Russia – $14,600
India – $2,700
Canada – $38,200
Australia – $37,500

To be fair, the US is outclassed in terms of per capita GDP by Luxembourg, Qatar, Bermuda, Norway, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Singapore — but that gets into some tricky statistical business.

The US continues to dominate as a production powerhouse, and as a single nation it is the superpower. But the European Union with its 27 member nations has already surpassed the US in cooperative production with a combined GDP of $14.45 trillion in 2007. No wonder the Euro is devaluing the dollar so efficiently. So far, we’ve managed to stay ahead by translating technological advances into corporate productivity, the New York Times argues.

No throne is ever 100 percent secure for life, and this is why the pesistent American attitude of unalterable, isolationist superiority and willful disregard of world affairs has me worried. True, the US continues to profit from huge consumption spending but high trade deficits and federal debt are perched to trump that and destroy our meager 2 percent annual growth rate.

That’s why the value of the US dollar is falling so quickly — and why it should be. One of the things that truly irks me about my fellow Americans is an attitude that the US deserves by the sheer force of its reputation to retain its position as the sole, indefatigable superpower. But as other nations reach post-industrial status, there will have to be a major shift in global economic balance.

Take a quiz

It’s intended for children, but I’m curious how well the blogosphere will perform: Try the GeoNet Game.


YesterGames #3: Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego?

March 6, 2008

FROM JASON’S GLOBE-TROTTING COMPUTER — My biggest fear, the one paranoia that keeps me awake some nights, is that we’re breeding idiots. The only thing keeping hope alive is Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego (download).

In America, we’re very good at certain things. Geography is not one of them. A 2006 survey conducted by the National Geographic Society found half of young Americans can’t find New York on a map and only 37 percent can find Iraq. The Society gave 510 U.S. citizens a weighted geography test and found that youngsters answered about 54 percent of the questions correctly, while most adults ages 18 to 24 failed.

And we’re not just talking about being able to label state capitals, here, folks. My fellow Americans don’t understand much about foreign culture, language, religion or history. Three-quarters of those tested didn’t know that Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim nation, and the same number thought English is the most-spoken language in the world (it’s actually Mandarin).

The study also found:

  • 75 percent could not find Israel on a map.
  • 44 percent could not find Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or Iran.
  • 88 percent could not identify Afghanistan on a map.
  • 54 percent did not know Sudan is in Africa.
  • 40 percent did not know Rwanda is in Africa.
  • 35 percent were able to identify Pakistan as the country where 70,000 people died in an earthquake in October 2005.
  • 67 percent were able to find Louisiana on a U.S. map.
  • 52 percent were able to find Mississippi on a U.S. map.
  • 69 percent found China on a map — and it registered as one of the few recognized countries outside of North America.

Public schools keep churning out geographically and historically illiterates, but I credit software developer Broderbund with doing more to further my knowledge of those subjects than any teacher or class.

The Carmen Sandiego series of computer games was born in 1985 with Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego, which would run on ludicrously slow computers and CGA monitors. It had the advantage of being prevalent in a time when edutainment software still had a viable share of the market, and I remember playing it at school and then begging my parents to buy a copy for home on my 286.

The game is little more than a test to see if you know that Indians speak Hindi, that Tokyo is a world electronics capital, that the Aztecs ruled what is now Mexico, that the Niger River is in Africa, that sherpas can be found in Kathmandu, and that Ferdinand Magellan didn’t quite circumnavigate the globe.

But it’s disguised as a crime caper, allowing you to chase down goofy suspects who’ve stolen impossible maguffins — like the Leaning Tower of Pisa — and gone on the lam. Using clues gathered as you fly around the world, you have to stay on the thief’s trail, get a warrant, and make an arrest.

Sure, there are some softball clues lobbed in there (“She was asking what the exchange rate is on the peso.”) but there are also some brain busters. I played this game for two hours Monday and Tuesday and was hooked the whole time, smiling stupidly to myself as I relived a huge part of my childhood and stretched my brain.

I also couldn’t get the theme song from the Carmen Sandiego game show on PBS out of my head. When I was 11, I watched every afternoon at 5 p.m. and was howling pre-adolescent profanity at the screen because the questions were so easy.

You’ve got to watch this. Full episode ahead:

If you have a student age 8 to 13 (or maybe a little older if they aren’t wusses), I can think of no better learning tool than Where In the Wold Is Carmen Sandiego?. The 1990 deluxe edition can be found at Home of the Underdogs, or if you have the scruples it can still be purchased from Broderbund for $10.

HOTU also has downloads for: