Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Music Industry Can't Keep Up With The Internet

We are living in a time where everything you need is a mouse-click away. The emergence of the internet, especially selling music online, has profoundly affected the music industry. As time passes, music is becoming more and more prominently sold through online marketplaces like Rhapsody and iTunes. The internet can be held responsible for the ever rising popularity of the Mp3 format which, due to its convenience, is steadily making compact disks obsolete. Not only has the internet been crucial in the change of the actual format that music is sold in, it has also changed the way music artists are discovered and promoted.

One of the hardest hit institutions within the music industry that has arguably been negatively affected is the monstrously large record companies. The introduction of MySpace music has made it possible for bands that don’t have a record deal to grow a following. Due to the ability to establish a following, these bands are given more leverage in terms of negotiations with record companies. It’s not all bad for the labels; often these companies have been able to find obscure artists and promote these artists through the internet.

Take the band Ok Go for example. Their first record was released in 2002 but didn’t really take off until 2006. The reason for the sudden popularity came with the release of the “Here It Goes Again” video on YouTube. The video soon went viral and as of today has received well over 2 million views. The video gave Ok Go an explosion of popularity and it even won them a Grammy. This is one of the most inspiring examples of the power the internet has to place a relatively unknown band into the forefront of popular culture.

In speaking with Tim Nordwind, the bassist for Ok Go, it was clear that he believed in the significance of the internet’s influence on the music industry. “The internet is certainly an important place for music being discovered these days, whether it’s through music or videos,” said Nordwind over the crackling of the phone he was speaking through. In terms of the ability for music to be freely posted online Nordwind said “Everyone is sort of utilizing the MySpace music pages or any of the other countless ways music can make it online. I think it’s great. I love the fact that the internet is out there so people can discover bands. I mean you could be a little garage band from New Zealand and people in America can listen to your music.”

The more worrisome change for the industry is definitely the ability for smaller labels to develop into significant forces. An Horse is a relatively new band from Australia that has enjoyed wonderful success very early in their career without the help of a major record company. From the strength of their first full record, An Horse has been able to sign label deals and tour Germany, Australia, North America, and Canada. I was lucky enough to sit and discuss some of the recent changes that have happened to record companies with Kate Cooper, the lead singer of An Horse. “It’s become relevant for them to reinvent themselves,” said Cooper. After taking a sip of her beer she continued, “I think record companies are still relevant but maybe the smaller independent ones are more relevant. Some of the people at our label, like the PR and management people, a lot of them used to work for major labels and they’ve said ‘I will never work for a major label again.’ It’s interesting because they are the ones who have seen how relevant or not they’ve become.”

The internet has become a leveling mechanism not only in terms of music but in a lot of ways. The big record labels must concede that this shift in culture has made their smaller peers more of a threat. The internet has had a profound effect on this industry and for the people consuming the products it’s a positive influence.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Blocking the Plate

In the baseball world Ryan Westmoreland is what’s known as a five-tooler. He has all the fundamentals that make a great player. He can hit for average, hit for power, field, throw and run the bases with near flawless execution. He is a lanky outfielder with vast potential and upside.

In the fifth round of the 2008 baseball draft, the Rhode Island native was selected by the Boston Red Sox. Shortly after he was drafted it was found that Westmoreland had a torn labrum in his shoulder which required surgery. During his first season of professional ball in 2009, Westmoreland broke his collarbone smashing into an outfield wall while making a catch, and again surgery was required.

Despite the injuries he was named the number one prospect in the Boston Red Sox farm system by Baseball America entering the 2010 season. During an interview with the publication he was asked what the organization wanted him to work on in the off-season. Westmoreland answered, “I am doing everything I can to stay healthy for the upcoming season.” Neither he, nor the team, could foresee that his prior injuries would be the least of his health concerns, as a potentially fatal diagnosis derailed his current path to stardom.

Going into Spring Training the Red Sox faithful were eager to catch a glimpse of the future and the 19-year-old Westmoreland was raring to get on the field. One week in, he was forced to leave the team’s minor league camp to seek treatment for reoccurring headaches. The next day he was diagnosed with a cavernous malformation of the brain. Urgent treatment was required and after visiting with specialists Westmoreland had brain surgery on March 16th.

A cavernous malformation (also known as cerebral cavernous malformation (CCM), cavernous haemangioma and cavernoma) occurs when a cluster of abnormal, thin-walled blood vessels of varied sizes permeate the tissue. The vessels occur in the brain or on the spinal cord and can affect the nerves and slowly leak stagnant blood causing complications. The cavernous malformation may lead to significant bleeding or hemorrhage into the brain tissue. According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, 1 in 200 people suffer from some form of cavernous malformation.

Unfortunately many patients with cavernous malformations can by asymptomatic. Indirect symptoms lead to their diagnosis, as was the case with Westmoreland. These symptoms include weakness, numbness, difficulty in speaking, difficulty in seeing, unsteadiness and loss of coordination. Eventually it could lead to continued hemorrhaging, advanced neurologic deterioration, intractable epilepsy, paralysis and even death if not detected and treated.

Another issue is that the malformations typically hemorrhage in small amounts with bleeding episodes separated by months or years. Therefore a hemorrhage may occur with increasing symptoms followed by gradual improvement as the blood is partially absorbed. Diagnosis can only be made through an MRI on the brain itself, so it is often only detected by accident. This was the case for Westmoreland, who had a malformation on his brain stem which did have an episode of bleeding. According to Dr. Joseph Maroon, the vice chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, “Any further bleeding would cause severe neurological damage.”

Just a few short years ago Westmoreland was a typical student at Portsmouth High School in Rhode Island. He was the star of his baseball team, earning numerous awards including the 2007 Rhode Island High School Baseball Player of the Year as well as both the 2007 and 2008 Cox Sports Television Baseball Scholar/Athlete of the Year. He dominated at the plate, in the outfield and even on the mound where he went 7-0 with a 0.45 ERA and a perfect game in his senior season. Baseball America had Westmoreland listed as the 113th best amateur prospect heading into the 2008 draft.

Living just an hour away from Fenway Park, Ryan was a typical, New England-raised Red Sox-diehard. So when they came knocking at the 172nd overall pick, Westmoreland passed up a full scholarship to play baseball at Vanderbilt and decided to pursue his professional baseball career. Ryan signed on the draft deadline day. Had he not, he would have retained his ability to pursue his college eligibility and the Red Sox would lose his rights. This earned him a $2,000,000 signing bonus, the third highest in team history.

Because of his late signing, he ended up playing one more summer of amateur ball with the Bayside Yankees in New York City. In November of 2008, Westmoreland underwent surgery for a tear in the cartilage near the top of his shoulder socket where the bicep tendon attaches to the shoulder. At the start of the 2009 season, Westmoreland was not fully healed, so he had to wait until July to make his professional debut. He kicked off his career with the short-season, Single-A level Lowell Spinners, mainly as a designated hitter.

He instantly proved himself at the plate and earned NY-Penn League All-Star honors. He would spend most of this summer as the club's designated hitter, but by mid-August he was itching to roam the outfield. On August 28th Westmoreland ran full speed into the left-centerfield wall making a spectacular catch and leaving a hole in the plywood wall at LeLacheur Park. He would be diagnosed with a fractured clavicle, was shut down for the remainder of the season and another surgery was in store for the young prospect.

Despite the injury, Westmoreland managed to put up big numbers for a first year player. He hit for an average of .296 with 15 doubles, 3 triples, 7 home runs, 35 runs batted in, 19 stolen bases and a .401 on-base percentage in only 60 games. He was gaining momentum within the organization and rising up the depth charts. Red Sox director of player development Mike Hazen went so far as to say that, “We would never assume players would walk into professional baseball and do what he did in all aspects of the game. He was very impressive."

He was also rising up the charts of the top prospect prognosticators as well. Two Baseball America writers listed him in their Top 25 prospects in all of baseball. Keith Law of ESPN Scouts Inc. had Westmoreland as the 32nd best in the minors and MLB Fanhouse had him at number 39 overall. The sky was the limit for Westmoreland and the Red Sox were willing to take the time to get him healthy and into big league shape.

The start of the 2010 season meant big things for Westmoreland. It would be his first opportunity to play a full professional season and he was charged up to prove to everyone that he was worthy of all the praise. In a Baseball America interview Westmoreland stated, “I don't know where they are going to put me but wherever I am I want to play to my potential.” At the end of February he packed up his gear and headed to Fort Myers, Florida for Spring Training.

Shortly after arriving Westmoreland did not feel right. He kept experiencing headaches that became more and more intense. He initially thought nothing of it until he started experiencing a tingling sensation in his head which eventually led to a numb feeling along his scalp. He traveled back to Boston and went to Mass General Hospital for a battery of tests. An MRI determined that the cavernous malformation on his brain stem was causing the symptoms. After a series of consultations, three specialists determined that surgery would be necessary. “It's very unusual to find these abnormalities in the brain stem," stated Dr. Joseph Moroon, "It is potentially life-threatening, as is any brain surgery."

Westmoreland traveled to Arizona to have the surgery, which was performed at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix. Dr. Robert Spetzler, who is renowned as one of the foremost experts in the field, performed the five hour surgery on Westmoreland’s brain. All of Red Sox Nation familiar with his situation had to hold their breath, since it typically takes a few days to determine what, if any, neurological damage may have occurred. A week after his surgery he was released from intensive care and began physical and occupational therapy in the hospital’s neuro-rehab unit.

Ryan would then be transported from Arizona back to Boston at the beginning of April, to undergo further therapy at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. On April 4th the Red Sox faithful received their first glimpse of Westmoreland since his surgery when he showed up at Opening Day seated in the Red Sox luxury box at Fenway Park. A little more than three weeks later he was released from Spaulding and returned home. He continues to undergo occupational and physical therapy as an outpatient there.

There have been other, similar high-profile malformation cases in the sporting world. Houston Astros manager Larry Dierker experienced a seizure and collapsed in the dugout during a game in 1999. He underwent surgery two days later and returned to the team four weeks after that. He would go on to lead the Astros to a division title that season.

Olympic gold medal winning track-and-field star Florence Griffith Joyner suffocated to death in her sleep after suffering a severe epileptic seizure in 1998. Coroners determined that this was brought on by a cavernous angioma which was never diagnosed, despite dealing with seizures in the past. Griffith Joyner was three months shy of her 39th birthday.

In 2004, world renowned bicyclist Alberto Contador suffered a seizure and fell during a race. The then 21-year-old found that he too had a cavernous angioma and underwent successful surgery. He would go on to win the 2007 and 2009 Tour de France and become the first Spainiard to win all three Grand Tours of road cycling.

In recent years the Boston Red Sox organization has endured major health scares from some of its top talent. In 2008, prospect Anthony Rizzo was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, halting his season. After undergoing chemo-therapy, he was declared cancer-free in November of 2009 and was recently promoted to the AA level Portland Sea Dogs after only 29 games with Single-A Salem.

And who could forgetwhen Jon Lester was diagnosed with cancer (anaplastic large cell lymphoma) in 2006? Less than one year later Lester was the winning pitcher in the clinching game of the 2007 World Series and in 2008 he hurled the 18th no-hitter in Boston Red Sox history. Throughout it all, the organization has stood by their players and supported them to the fullest, much in the same way that they are doing with Westmoreland. They are hopeful for similar results in improved health as well.

Westmoreland’s progress has been closely guarded and his agents released a statement saying, “We greatly appreciate the privacy that we have had to this point. This privacy has allowed Ryan to focus entirely on his rehabilitation and we believe this has helped him make significant progress in a short period of time. The next few weeks are very important to Ryan’s recovery. We prefer to maintain this level of privacy until Ryan is further along in the rehabilitation process.”

Westmoreland has made another trip to Fenway on April 18th and the NESN cameras showed him smiling and enjoying the game with his friends around him. He is showing obvious progress and the organization is upbeat about the strides he is making. A Red Sox official made it a point to convey that "he's a fantastic kid. Very professional, very intelligent, well-spoken, a good worker -- everything you'd want in a kid." At this point, there is no way to know if he will ever play baseball again, but for the time being everyone is just happy to see this “fantastic kid” enjoying life again.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Karmic Life of Literature

What happens when you read a book?

The answer, perhaps, depends on the reader, the writer, and the book itself.

In a strictly biological sense, written information is received by the retina, processed by your brain in the primary visual cortex, and then interpreted in Wernicke's area, an area of the cerebral cortex devoted to understanding written and spoken language.

But there’s a little more to it than that. Something else happens when you read. Sometimes the book makes an impact that goes beyond the physical process of reading and retaining information. It interacts with other thoughts, memories, and ideas all ready floating around inside your head, and the seed of something new begins to form.

Maybe it’s the feeling of finding the perfect expression of what you’ve been dying to articulate your whole life. You decide, “This is my favorite book,” and it changes the way you perceive everything around you, or it strengthens perceptions you already had. Then that love inspires you to change some aspect of your life and that internal feeling becomes external.

Maybe you read Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and you get “So it goes” tattooed across your foot. Or maybe, if you’re Seth Grahame-Smith, you read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen in high school and ten years later you write a bestselling novel called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Or maybe, if you’re Michael Cunningham, you read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and you write a book inspired by it called The Hours, for which you win a Pulitzer Prize. After that your book becomes a movie, and then Nicole Kidman wins an Oscar playing your interpretation of Virginia Woolf.

It’s this process that causes literature to regenerate itself and to form offspring: it’s an endless cycle of inspiration and creation, one that sometimes gets overlooked in the conception of books as dusty objects rotting on library shelves.

Virginia Woolf is an author that particularly embodies this karmic life cycle of literature, the rebirth of novels and essays as more novels, or short stories or poems, or new kinds of essays with new interpretations, or even as movies and songs. Emily Herr, Eve Sorum, and Matt Kivel are a part of this life cycle.

A sophomore at Emmanuel College, Emily Herr is fresh faced, with bright blue eyes and freckles, and speaks with a youthful enthusiasm. “I first heard about Virginia Woolf in one of my classes,” she says. “And I immediately thought of our zine.”

The zine she’s referring to was the brainchild of Emmanuel’s Feminist Coalition. An organization brand new to the campus, with Herr as one of its founding members, the Coalition had spent a few months putting up flyers and meeting once a week when they decided to try their hands at publishing. Each member was responsible for crafting an article for the zine, and after class, Herr knew immediately what she wanted to write about.

The piece the class read was A Room of One’s Own.

Published in 1929, A Room of One's Own attempts to address the reasons behind the lack of well-respected female writers in history. In it, Woolf comes to the now famous conclusion that women need money and a room of their own in order to write fiction.

“I was fascinated with the parts about Shakespeare's fictional sister that Woolf makes up,” Herr leans forward, her eyes wide. “Judith, I think her name was.”

Judith Shakespeare is a tool Woolf uses in a sort of historical experiment where gender is the only variable. Woolf molds Judith into a writer and genius that is every bit Shakespeare’s equal, but is denied the opportunities open to him because she is a woman. Woolf concludes that:

"Any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at."

Herr focused the article on Judith. She turned Judith from Woolf’s way of diagnosing the problem into a call to action for young women writers everywhere. She wrote: “Women may not have had the opportunity to create literary works as significant as Shakespeare but now here is our chance.”

A small booklet of about five pages, printed on plain computer paper with black ink, the zine circulated its way around the Emmanuel campus in March, in honor of Women's History Month.

Like Emily Herr, University of Massachusetts Boston Professor Eve Sorum’s first experience with Woolf was also A Room of One’s Own. She fondly recalls a friend handing it to her in high school. “She said, ‘Here’s a book about writing and about feminism. I think we’ll like it.’”

Sorum laughs. “I don’t remember how much I actually understood of it,” she reflects, “but after that I read some of her novels and I had this sense that even though I wasn’t necessarily getting everything that she was saying, there was this new way of opening up my way of thinking about what words could do.”

This new way of thinking led to a passion Sorum pursued in college, where she focused her studies on literary modernism, the literary period following World War I that inspired authors like Woolf to break from traditional forms. Sorum now teaches a class at UMass that reads Woolf’s work exclusively. Sorum engages with Woolf’s texts on a day to day basis. Essentially, studying Woolf is what pays Sorum’s bills.

In the classroom, Sorum has students sit in a circle. She stands in the center or walks about the room, gesturing gracefully, her piercing blue eyes demanding attention and response as she writes questions and notes on the whiteboard.

“She (Woolf) seems to be morphing in so many ways as a figure. It’s both what makes it fabulous to teach but it also makes it difficult.”

Sorum says there are a wide range of reactions from students. They attempt to classify her based on things they’ve heard or seen. Some understand her as simply a feminist writer; others know little or nothing at all about her prior to taking the class. For many, The Hours is the only conception they have of Virginia Woolf: a mentally unstable woman with an uncommonly large nose who drowns herself in a river.

But as the class progresses, conceptions change. “One of the students in the class who writes fiction said: ‘Reading this… it felt like, oh! This is how I want to write.’” Sorum pauses before continuing. “And it was amazing to me,” she says finally, “thinking that here is a young man in the early twentieth century, saying this, and there is still that sense of excitement and possibility with her language and what she’s doing.”

The excitement and possibility felt by that writer in Sorum’s class was shared by Matt Kivel and his twin brother, Jesse. But Matt and Jesse weren’t so much focused on language. They wanted a new and different approach to looking at literature, and at Virginia Woolf as a writer: through the lens of music and songwriting.

Growing up in Santa Monica, California, the two decided to form a band. They called it Princeton, after the street they lived on. Princeton’s first EP was called “Bloomsbury,” in honor of the intellectual circle called the Bloomsbury Group that Virginia Woolf was a part of throughout the early twentieth century. Each song on the EP was inspired by a member of the group.

Princeton’s song “The Waves” is intended to be an account of Woolf’s thoughts as she commits suicide:

"But when it's over now
I'd say I'd know how
She would be hypnotized, watching the sky
And oh the songs we'd sing, when she'd come home to me
The masks and the jewelry, gifts from the land"

The song is a unique interpretation, with cryptic lyrics, an upbeat tempo and cheery instrumentation, with lots of bells, piano, and some ukulele.

In an interview with LA Record, Matt Kivel discussed the power of using different creative mediums to express an inspiration based on one thing.

“Looking at a painting of a mountain—a photo, a film, all of a mountain and writing a song or book about a mountain—they can describe the same thing but the beauty of these different mediums is they do it in different ways.”

He continued: “What’s interesting is you can convey nuances of the same object using different mediums. In music, melody and mood and texture create a much more immediate reaction in a person’s mind. You can feel a certain way and you don’t have to think about it.”

Princeton’s interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s suicide is very different from the movie version in The Hours and different from the book The Hours. All are undeniably very different from the actual event itself, which happened almost seventy years ago. But this process of reinvention, of these different interpretations, has kept the memory of the original event alive, and kept Woolf’s work alive as well.

Great literature and great writers continue to morph even after the page is printed and the funeral finished. Ideas beget new ideas, and the next time you read, you may find yourself a part of the cycle.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Time to End Don't Ask, Don't Tell

“I think it’s been a long time coming,” explained Caroline Necheles, coordinator of UMass Boston’s veterans’ center and nine year Navy operations specialist, regarding the recent proposal to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is the military policy that restricts officials in the armed forces from asking service members about their sexual orientation and ‘permits’ homosexuals to serve in the military, as long as they don’t talk about their orientation or participate in any homosexual acts. Although this policy is labeled as a fix for an issue that has polarized America’s social political climate, it is in effect a double standard that inevitably leads to discrimination. Necheles experienced firsthand the effects of ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.’ She commented, “During my deployment in 2006 I was asked if I was participating in an inappropriate relationship with a woman, after e-mails were exposed between another female military service member and myself.” Necheles was not disciplined officially for her conduct, but she was questioned by her superiors, which itself is a form of discrimination. Other members of the armed forces have not been as fortunate as Necheles, and have suffered disciplinary measures for openly admitting their sexual orientation.

One such incident occurred when Stephen Benjamin, an Arabic translator for the Navy, was discharged for “suspicious” instant messaging conversations he had with his roommate. The two wanted to keep in touch after his roommate was deployed overseas. According to Benjamin, “The result was the termination of our careers, and the loss to the military of two more Arabic translators. The sixty eight other (heterosexual) service members remained on active duty, despite many having committed violations far more egregious than ours; the Pentagon apparently doesn’t consider hate speech, derogatory comments about women, or sexual misconduct grounds for dismissal.” This shocking story is just one of many that resulted from the tactless guidelines of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and its obvious unlawful and discriminatory nature.

The policy infringes upon the rights and freedoms of American citizens and institutionalizes discrimination. What is most dangerous and sinister about this policy is the way it is portrayed as the solution to a problem it actually serves to perpetuate and augment. In effect, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell allows the armed forces to fully discriminate against anyone who behaves in a way that warrants an investigation, according to their own subjective criteria. That is to say, this policy states that officials are forbidden to “ask” if someone is gay, but if and when they feel under the impression that someone is homosexual, they have the full clearance to question, investigate, and ultimately terminate any individual.

DADT was first set into place in 1993 by Bill Clinton. Initially, President Clinton vowed to allow openly homosexual individuals to serve in the military. However, Clinton underestimated the resistance he would meet on the issue. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was the compromise law that resulted. Since 1993 thousands of homosexual military members have been discharged, when their personal sexual orientations were revealed. These military members served the United States armed forces with honor and reverence, but have been dismissed because of issues in their personal lives. According to Necheles, “The U.S. needs to realize that if homosexual Americans are willing to fight for their country, they should be allowed to be legally open with their sexuality and permitted to participate in the military.” Smoking a cigarette and looking sincere, Necheles continued, “When you enter the military, you swear to uphold the Code of Conduct. Furthermore, you are expected to give up your right to privacy and a personal life. However, to me that doesn’t mean that homosexuals can’t support the Code of Conduct while also being true to themselves.”

Seventeen years after DADT was instated, the policy has come under substantial scrutiny. In March of 2010, the Senate Armed Forces Committee began preparing the repeal of DADT in taking the first steps in terminating the indecent law. Ultimately though, the decision rests with congress where many of the members still favor keeping the policy intact. Republican congressman Duncan Hunter explained, “I think that the majority of people in the military are young kids. They usually have more conservative families, more conservative backgrounds and I think that it would go against their principles and it would frankly make everybody a little bit uneasy to be in these close situations, how you go into combat, you know, the shower situation, the bathroom situation, just, you know, very mundane details - things that we have men and women separated, you know, because we don’t want to have that sexual distraction. That exists for the homosexual aspect of things, too.” Congressman Hunter represents the bigotry that is unfortunately ever-present in our society. By insisting that allowing homosexuals in the military would make everyone “uneasy” is insulting and discriminatory. The idea of fighting in a war seems to be more harmful for these so called “conservative kids,” than a gay guy in the bathroom stall next to them.

President Obama announced, “"This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are." Necheles speaks about the repeal in an optimistic and hopeful way, “I was exceptionally happy when the possible repeal of the policy was announced. I thought it was very righteous of Admiral Mullen to announce that it is the ‘right thing’ for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to be overturned. It’s about time."

Menino's Plan for Increasing Students' Performance

“Is Mr. Menino going crazy?” says Adrian, a third grade student at a Boston Public School. “He can’t stop recess. That is when we have the most fun at school. We run around and chase each other and play on the playground.” This is the reaction that many elementary school students have in response to Mayor Menino’s plan of eliminating recess in order to improve the low scores of last year’s MCAS exams. If you were to visit and observe Adrian and his classmates during recess, you can easily understand that recess plays a crucial role in elementary students’ day. So why would Mayor Menino want to take that way from students?

According to the 2009 MCAS results, the scores have indicated that schools are out of compliance with federal achievement standards. In 2001, former president George W. Bush and his administration proposed The No Child Left Behind Act. This bill enacted the theories of standard-based education reform, which is based on the belief that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals can improve individual outcomes in education. The Act requires states to develop assessments in basic skills to be given to all students in certain grades.

Massachusetts though has been practicing these new reforms long before The No Child Left Behind Act. In 1993, the Massachusetts legislature passed the Education Reform Act. This law called for the creation of curriculum frameworks or guidelines for what should be taught in all schools in different grade levels. This law also called for a comprehensive assessment system that would measure whether schools were teaching the state curriculum. Massachusetts fulfills the requirements of this federal Act by administering a standardized examination, called the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or the MCAS. The MCAS has three primary purposes; to inform and improve curriculum and instruction, evaluate the student, school and district performance according to the Massachusetts Curriculum Framework and to determine if a student is eligible to receive a high school diploma.But according to the consistent low MCAS scores, Massachusetts still has not been able to fully comply with both the Education Reform Act and The No Child Left Behind Act. The 2009 results demonstrate that 937 elementary, middle, and high schools, or approximately 54% of all schools statewide, failed to meet the benchmark. Out of those 937 schools, 135 were Boston Public Schools.

Recently, Mayor Menino proposed various methods in increasing student performance in Boston Public Schools. One method is to eliminate recess and most extracurricular activities, such as art and music. Another method is to extend the school day from 6 hours to 8 hours. Menino believes that one of these methods would allow for more extensive practice for MCAS examination and has already initiated a plan. For many weeks now, Mayor Menino has been working alongside the Superintendent and School Committee Chairman to form Team BPS, which is a group of Boston Public School alumni, teachers, parents and civic leaders to represent Boston Public Schools. In a couple of weeks, the launching of this new group will become public and their plan for improving standardized scores will be announced.

While many parents are excited that their children will be given more school time, for it could potentially save them money on after school programs, what do students think? Is it healthy for students to be stripped of their playtime or forced to be in a classroom for another 2 hours? Adrian and many of his classmates do not support Menino’s proposal, but neither does his concerned mother who believes that “recess defines the joys of childhood. There is no need to take this away from our young children.” Adrian and his mother have a very good point here. Recess is the time when the energy received from lunch can be released. It’s a time when children can step away from the classroom, and enjoy some playtime with their classmates. When students return to the classroom, they will pay more attention to the teacher and get back to work.

Research has been able to clearly indicate that children do indeed need recess. As far back as 1885 and 1901, research shows that both children and adults learn better and more quickly when their efforts are distributed (breaks are included) than when concentrated (work is conducted in longer periods). More recently, the “novelty-arousal theory” has suggested that people function better when they have a change of pace. Because young children don’t process most information as effectively as older children, they can especially benefit from breaks. Also, Dr. Olga Jarrett and her colleagues were able to prove that “children become more on-task and less fidgety on days when they have recess.”

Being stuck in a place for a lengthy amount of time will also lead to even more complications. Many child psychologists concur with these facts, stating that recess and extracurricular activities such as gym, is a crucial part of the day, especially for elementary school students. Melinda Bossenmeyer, child psychologist and author of Peaceful Playgrounds says, “Recess is the time when kids can take pleasure in the outdoors while cultivate a passion for physical activity.” Children in elementary school have so much energy, recess and the freedom to run around permits a lot of the extra energy to be burned off. Not only is all that energy released, but students engage in physical activity, a very beneficial factor in a child’s fitness. If you eliminate recess and gym time, it will only cause students to be inactive. By implementing physical activity throughout a child’s day, it will help decrease their risk of obesity, which has become a huge concern over the past few years.

What about extending the school day? Adrian also comments on this proposal, stating that “making the school day longer will not be good. I just want to go home after a long day at school. Plus, we already do enough at school. I can’t be there any longer.” An anonymous Boston Public Elementary School Teacher responds to Adrian’s comment, saying that “even though I am all for the students and their performance, eliminating recess or even extending the school day may not be the best choice. We really do not want the hours to be longer. If you were to visit my classroom during the last period of school, then you would understand why students and teachers do not want the school days to be longer. By the last hour of school, not only are students fatigued from all the learning that has taken place during the day, but the teachers are fatigued from teaching all day. It takes so much effort from the students to be willing to learn and from the teachers willing to teach that by the time is it the last hour of school, everyone is ready to go home and relax.”

Even though teachers and students may not approve of these two approaches, there has been evidence that lengthening the school day may indeed be Menino’s plan of choice. In 2007, a few charter schools and 10 public schools in Massachusettes lengthened the school day by 25%, allowing more time for hands-on learning. Students received extra reading and writing time and math practices. These schools also reinstated former programs, such as Arts and sports, that were cut because of the extra math and reading time added in order to focus on the No Child Left Behind challenges. After only one year, the schools received alarming results, indicating a correlation between longer school days and students’ performance. Students who scored as “least proficient” increased their math scores by 7.2%, their science scores by 4.7% and their English scores by 10.8%. The average growth of students achieving proficiency in the initial 10 schools was a total of 12.7 points in math on the exam. After U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy reviewed these statistics, he urged Congress to pass a bill that would give schools funding to begin the longer day format. The future funding to continue the programs is unknown though. It will take millions of dollars for Mayor Menino to enact his plans and many teachers’ unions do not comply with this because their pay comes into question. A union source said teachers would not oppose longer days but would seek increased pay, which is a difficult task given current economic crisis. Hopefully though Mayor Menino will look beyond all that and focus on what benefits a child more.

Love that Dirty Water

“Attention all people living in Boston. Do not drink the water! I repeat do not drink the water!” This brief and redundant warning was the primary means of getting a hold of the people of Boston and its surrounding areas over the weekend of the Aquapocalypse. Masses of policemen rode up and down the streets gripping their bullhorns, frantically shouting, placing particular emphasis on the 'watah' with their Boston accents. On May 1, a 10 foot wide pipe broke in Weston, Massachusetts around 10:30 a.m. leaving over 30 communities* without safe drinking water.

Although the pipe is now repaired, thousands of people went without water for two days. There were extreme safety precautions taken just to carry out daily routines of brushing teeth, bathing, washing hands, and doing the dishes. Water had to be boiled for 60 seconds before it could be used. Workers of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) reported the backup filter water was “essentially untreated pond or lake water.” Most of the chaos came from communities that were raiding local supermarkets for bottled water and panicking over the deprivation of coffee. K.C., a UMass Boston student and employee of BJ’s in Revere, explained: “The store was crazy that weekend. Bottled water was literally flying off the shelves. I was answering phones at the service desk and I was petrified to pick up the phone and tell another person ‘No ma’am, no sir, we do not have any water here.’ The phone would not stop ringing and we had no more water. Policemen were at our store because families were fighting over Poland Spring. I was thinking, ‘Hello! It’s not that bad people, just boil water.’” The pipe break was so serious President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration coordinating disaster relief efforts from the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management. Governor Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency. Who is to blame for the pipe break and pandemonium?

The confusing explanations of how the Boston Water System is set up are distracting readers from the issue. The water is primarily stored in Quabbin Reservoir; it is filtered through the Marlborough plant. The pipes extend to Weston, where the water flows. The MWRA knows what happened and what the cause was, but why it happened is still questionable. A one ton metal collar that joins the pipes broke off as water burst from every angle and drained into the Charles River. Fred Laskey, executive director of the MWRA, explained: “The pipe was only seven years old. It could be a design flaw, construction flaw, faulty products, or something in our system.” When the pipe burst, large rubber gaskets which attach the collar and pipe were floating above the leak. After a thorough investigation, police and water workers still could not find the metal collars, only the rubber gaskets which got wrapped around a telephone pole. The gaskets are going to help supposedly explain why the pipe break started by examining the size, strength, and product itself.

That first weekend in May caused fighting and bickering. Peddlers were overcharging bottled water, but this was kept under control because of Attorney General Martha Coakley. P.P., an Allston resident, describes how she saw an older man selling cases of water out of the trunk a Jeep: “I could not believe it. My friends and I were driving home from grocery shopping, and this guy was just standing there taking money from people. Five bucks for a measly Poland Spring bottle! I don’t think he was around for very long. I saw a police car drive towards us. How ridiculous people are to even try doing that in a state of emergency.” Coakley managed to prevent most of these types of unfair transactions from happening: “Businesses and individuals cannot and should not take advantage of this public emergency to unfairly charge consumers . . . for water.” She also set up a hotline and website where people could file complaints if they felt they were being cheated money for water: or 617-727-8400.

Meanwhile, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts had their own nutcases to deal with during the water crisis concerning coffee. An employee of Starbucks in Boston said, “People were rude. I understand you don’t have coffee, but I can’t control that. If you want coffee, I’ll let you jump behind the counter and make it, but I can guarantee you that you will get sick. We just sold food. Who knew lack of water could make people so crazy? I was so happy when we finally got water back, so I could serve people their coffee, and get them the heck out of my store.” As baristas were combating with super clients, Cambridge sat pretty as they enjoyed clean, non-toxic, non-parasitic showers, and sipped coffee freely. Cambridge, Massachusetts has its own water supply that is not run by MWRA. The water is acquired from Hobbs Brook (located in Lincoln and Waltham), Stony Brook (Weston), and Fresh Pond (Cambridge). Water is filtered at Fresh Pond then pumped through the Payson Park Reservoir (Belmont) and reallocated down to each person.

Another location that was able to receive clean water was the Longwood Medical Area. Water authority spokeswoman Ria Convery said, “The authority, working with the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, was able to reconfigure the water pipe lines.” The Longwood Medical Area consists of four major hospitals: Children’s Hospital, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Each place was able to go about their usual routine without worrying about contamination or relying on water bottles to treat their patients. Unfortunately, not all hospitals were lucky. Tufts Medical Center in Boston was one of several hospitals who had to deal with the polluted water. They had to use bottled water for the patients and to replenish cooking water. There were warning signs placed all over water fountains and bathrooms. Leigh Lucas Geary, a spokeswoman from Tufts, said that no surgeries or medical services were seriously affected. This hospital, and many others, managed to work under the sudden conditions without fear.

Many people living in or around Boston explained that the pipe break was not the end of the world. J.G. said, “I go to school and I work. I used water bottles. Yes, it’s terrible what happened with the pipes, but there are countries that have a far worse situation where they will never get clean water. It’s not a big deal, just boil some water.” Another UMass student, R.L., explained, “I agree with her. This is nonsense. People were pacing back and forth at my office because they could not handle not having a pot of coffee. Really? It could be worse. My family and I are dealing with it by taking the precautions and just using our brains.”

Local schools remained open during the pipe break, just making sure that there were signs everywhere informing the faculty and students of the contaminated water. Many schools shut off or taped over water fountains to be sure no one tried taking a drink. Purell stations were everywhere from the bathrooms to the cafeterias. Many school districts like Arlington, Somerville, and Brookline sent out notices to parents and staff, asking them to donate wipes and bottled water. Extra precautions were taken in the lunchroom, too: Arlington removed fruits and vegetables and salad bars from the menus, instead preparing a menu that did not rely on water. “The key things are the food service,” said Medford Superintendent Roy Belson. “We have prepared a menu that does not require water.” Other locations switched from dishes to disposable at risk of washing in tainted water. Did schools have to adjust their agenda and preparations? Yes, but they managed to survive.

We can all make similar alterations, but it is important to deal with the situation and not freak out about coffee or taking twenty minute showers. Instead, we should be focused on learning why a seven year old pipe broke in the first place. In fact, after forcing all these people to boil water all weekend, the water turned out to be just fine. A lot of people were pissed off. Boston resident B.N. said, “I could not believe I had to spend my weekend gargling with my water bottle and boiling grimy water to make food. I have a few choice words for the city: screw you people.” On May 2, hundreds of water samples were taken from some of the ponds; the water turned out to be clean and no different than any other day.

According to the MWRA and The Boston Globe, “just 4 of 820 samples taken from throughout the affected area contained any potentially harmful bacteria.” Robert Keough, spokesman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, added: “This was a precaution. We didn’t know what the quality of the water was going to be like.” Although these officials were trying to be careful, perhaps running tests immediately after the break would have been a wiser option. The sooner the results came in, the easier the maintenance would have been for communities who were scurrying around and scrounging up all the available water bottles. Even if the State House and MWRA could not figure out why the metal collar busted, they should have stopped and used some common sense to prevent some of the unnecessary chaos from occurring. After all, the water was drinkable all along: how about passing me some of that dirty water?

Additional information regarding the pipe break can be found at:

*Lists of cities included in boil-order:
Allston, Arlington, Belmont, Boston, Brookline, Canton, Chelsea, Everett, Hanscom, Lexington, Lynnfield, Malden, Marblehead, Medford, Melrose, Milton, Nahant, Newton, Norwood, Quincy, Reading, Revere, Saugus, Somerville, Stoneham, Swampscott, Waltham, Watertown, Winchester, and Winthrop.

The World Cup Is Not Enough

Freedom Day celebrations kicked off in the South African capital of Pretoria last Tuesday, where thousands gathered at the Union Buildings as the country commemorated the sixteen year anniversary of the first democratic election on April 27, 1994. Political leaders from all over the country, and from all major political parties, are calling on the people of South Africa to look ahead with hope to an ever improving democratic nation. As recorded in a recent Cape Times article, Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Athol Trollip told South Africans during the Freedom Day celebration that the country could not afford to de-generate as many other post-colonial African countries had. "We must protect the South African miracle," he said.

Many South African citizens and politicians are hopeful that the FIFA World Cup, hosted in South Africa in the summer of 2010, is the key to the future success of the country. "Let’s make sure we raise the flag, that we sing the national anthem... let's spread the message that today is better than yesterday, tomorrow will be better than today," Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane said.

Many US citizens, and citizens of the global community, have long dismissed South Africa as a country either flourishing in their new democratic system, or hopelessly buried under a history of racism and oppression. In reality, the country is at neither of these extremes, but is caught in a political no man’s land between turmoil and triumph. While the new democratic government has allowed for much progress in the area of human rights, many other issues, like public safety, health care reform, and education are falling by the wayside, in desperate need of attention by local, provincial and national governments.

If the FIFA World Cup 2010 tournament in South Africa is now giving much needed hope to a country that overcame Apartheid just sixteen short years ago, then what is this nation missing? With a triumph over racism and a new democratic government, how is it possible that South Africa is still waiting for confirmation from the outside world that they are, as Athol Trollip says, “a miracle”? Some might say that the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa, and the political backlash from related health care reforms have prevented the nation from rising to an expected level of progress. Political leaders have also accused opposition parties of preventing progress by remaining partisan on national issues, which perpetuates racial and cultural divides as remnants of Apartheid South Africa. With the widespread nostalgia of former Apartheid supporters and the frustration of dissatisfied progressive activists, it’s no wonder that the FIFA World Cup is being touted as a solution to the South African progress slump.

South Africa, since the fall of Apartheid, has made enormous progress toward democracy in the arena of human rights equality. The HIV/AIDS epidemic, a problem which was alternately ignored or demonized for decades is now the focus of public policy, healthcare reforms and university and hospital research. An education system that was long segregated has been improved greatly by integration and the implementation of strict guidelines for testing and passing grade levels.

Education reform, a priority in theory, is in practice a struggling system. Teachers are now required to take the same tests as their students, in the hopes that this will increase the level of competency among educators. While this new policy is an attempt to narrow the gap between expected qualifications and real world deficiencies, there are few incentives for under qualified teachers to go back to school. Until those formerly segregated teachers, many of whom had reached the career glass ceiling under Apartheid, are given the opportunity to improve their educations, the system will continue to fail. On the Western Cape, home to some of the best schools in South Africa, the Democratic Alliance party is celebrating a pass rate increase from 14% to 17% for middle-school age students. The DA understands that this percentage is dismal, but with the state of education in South Africa, every increase is critical.

In the realm of healthcare, small steps must also be applauded. Everyone in South Africa is guaranteed health care. In theory, this is an ideal strategy. But HIV medication is exponentially more expensive than most South Africans can afford, as are the health care support and resources required for the successful treatment of HIV/AIDS. And with the wide range of other health issues that are associated with HIV/AIDS, like Tuberculosis and mother-to-child transmission, the health care system is understandably overwhelmed and underprepared. One HIV/TB patient at Brooklyn Chest Hospital, a Cape Town hospital that treats HIV/AIDS patients suffering from Tuberculosis and other lung diseases, said of her treatment there: “I waited six weeks for a bed in this hospital. When I was called away to attend a funeral in my home town, the next person on the waiting list was given my bed. I had to wait another month to be readmitted.” The problem of limited capacity is just one of many preventing hospital and clinic patients from receiving the care they need, especially in rural areas where patients must travel long distances for treatment and prescriptions.

With the fall of Apartheid, human rights have become a major area of reform in South Africa, where politicians are trying to make up for a half century of segregation and oppression with new policies. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in the mid-nineties to deal with gross human rights violations, was one such policy. More recently, the less obvious remnants of Apartheid are being dismantled piecemeal. One new item of legislation is calling to change Afrikaans street and building names from racist terms to more inclusive and genial ones. Some argue that the racist names are a part of South African history, and shouldn’t be changed. Others, from the liberal political parties and formerly oppressed groups, feel that these names are degrading to black and colored populations, and believe that keeping the Afrikaans names will perpetuate a separatist mentality in South Africa. Whether the names are changed is still up for debate, and with so many nostalgic white South Africans opposing the policy, an official name change will do little to change the attitudes that go hand in hand with racist terminology.

With so many public policies falling short of their goals for social and political reform in the new Democratic South Africa, one might assume there is a shortage of funds for the necessary improvements. Enter: FIFA World Cup 2010.

Hosting the World Cup will set South Africa back much more than initially estimated, with rising costs expected to bring the total for stadium construction to well over the 9.8 billion rand (1.28 billion dollars) budgeted in 2009, which was up from the 6.7 billion rand South Africa initially agreed to spend when it won the right to host the tournament back in 2004. For the extra money, the nine host cities will have to look not only to the government but also to the African Development Bank for low-interest loans, said Jabu Moleketi, deputy finance minister and a member of the World Cup Local Organizing Committee, in a recent article. Much of this money has been spent over the last few years to build five new soccer stadiums, and to make structural and aesthetic improvements to five other existing venues across the country. In addition, host cities are implementing complex infrastructure improvements such as new roads and highways, city beautification projects and larger police and maintenance crews.

Billions are being spent on improvements meant only to benefit South African soccer fans and international tourists, while areas like healthcare, education and human rights are being all but ignored. The money spent in preparation for the FIFA World Cup 2010 could be allocated to more productive and long term solutions to the problems facing South Africa today. Instead, by summer’s end, the country will have beautiful roads but fewer jobs; state of the art soccer stadiums but no new healthcare reform; a booming tourist economy but failing educational standards. When the World Cup dust settles, South Africa will be no closer to the progressive democratic national improvements on which sixteen years have been spent. And those citizens hoping that this international event will provide South Africa with much needed revenue will realize, too late, that the FIFA World Cup 2010 is not enough. Contrary to Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane’s positive outlook, while this event has made “today better than yesterday”, when the World Cup is over, tomorrow will be worse than today.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Freddy Got Fingered: The Worst of Them All

What certain qualities could a movie have in order to be recognized as the worst movie ever? For one thing, movies are usually poorly reviewed because of the actors and their poor performances, their lack of some appealing plot and also because of the failed promises that the movie preview proclaimed. When I think of all these features in regards to a movie's quality, only one movie comes to mind, and that is the 2001 movie, Freddy got Fingered. Not only does this movie have horrible actors, such as Tom Green and his sick and twisted mind, but the movie overall did not seem to have an overarching, appealing point to it. You would think that a 93 minute movie that featured some of Hollywood’s proclaimed comedians would have some entertainment, but it only concluded in utter disappointment. Some people may have different opinions of what exactly constitutes good humor and praise Tom Green for his style of comedy, but trust me when I say that there are a lot more people out there who think that Tom Green has some loose screws and has a completely dry, crappy sense of humor. Even after 9 years, I still remember this movie and consider it one of the worst films I have ever had to suffer through.

In the movie, Tom Green plays Gord Brody, a 28-year old man who still lives at home with his parents. His bedroom is the basement, where he sits and draws cartoons and dreams about one day becoming an animator. Taking on the apparent role of a person with physiological issues, (which seems to tie in just right with the actor himself who actually wrote this piece of crap), the things he gets himself into are not at all humorous. In one instance of the move, he goes to visit a Hollywood animator in order to better improve his own skills. The Hollywood animator tells him that he will become better if he “gets inside his animals,” and the characters interpretation of that is to skin a stag and frolic around the room dressed in a coat, covered in blood.

Not only is this humor sick and twisted, but the various sexual references mentioned in the movie just made me want to turn my head and vomit. The character has a romantic interest in a disabled girl named Better, who dreams of rocket-powered wheelchairs and oral sex. When Gord sees her on the street and asks her how she’s feeling, she answers “I’d be a lot better if you'd smack my legs with this bamboo.” Not only are the imaginations that the girl envisions just ridiculously insulting and crude, but picturing Tom Green in any sexual act is nauseating.

What seemed to bring me over the edge was when Tom Green’s character thought that his father’s molestation of his younger brother was funny. After Gord riggs a pulley system so he can eat sausages and work on his drawings, he makes up a little song for his father so he can play on his electric keyboard while eating the hanging sausages. “Daddy would you like some sausage,” became a very familiar song, but in reality, it just added to the failed attempts of humor.
The most sickening scene of them all though, is the part when Tom Green’s character decided to visit a friend in the hospital and decided to become an obstetrician and deliver a women’s baby. Not only is the idea of some insane man delivering a baby absurd, but Green actually rips the baby from the womb, and begins swinging it around his head by its umbilical cord, trying to save it from dying, and sprays the walls with blood and guck. So please, save yourself from ever considering watching this movie. It’s contains one failed attempt of humor after another, with sick characters and immoral, nauseating scenes.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Fake-You-mentaries: Ruining Alien Belief Since 2009

In 2009, writer/director Olatunde Osunsanmi released his film The Fourth Kind, a supernatural thriller that insisted it was “based on true events.” The title refers to a measurement of alien encounters: an encounter of the fourth kind implies alien abduction. The film generated interest in the notion that the actors' performances were based directly from recorded evidence of a town plagued by abduction. The only plague, though, seems to be the film itself, whose devotion to validating its authenticity does nothing but ruin any merit it may have had.

As a believer in extraterrestrial life, I was excited by the idea that circumstantial evidence shaped this film. And there are aspects that are, in fact, true: the city of Nome, Alaska, where the story takes place suffers from an abnormally large number of missing persons reports, the cause of which remains unknown. Using the ambiguity behind this fact, Osunsanmi built his film around a falsified psychological research project conducted in the area in 2000 by Dr. Abigail Tyler, portrayed by Milla Jovovich. Dr. Tyler is continuing to study case-by-case sleep deprivation in the city of Nome, despite the recent, disturbing death of her husband. She finds strange and unsettling patterns within her case studies: her patients are blacking out around 3:30 every morning, and report being watched by a white owl. Hypnosis reveals that the residents of Nome are being plagued seemingly not by sleep deprivation but by frequent visits, observation and abduction by alien life.

We are not unfamiliar with being deceived with the plainly stated disclaimer at the beginning of movies. “The film you are about to see is based on true events.” Experience has taught us that this is often a misnomer, and filmmakers can and will lie to us for their own profit. Which is fine! Using “collected video evidence” from some mysterious vault, Osunsanmi wants us to believe that his actors are simulating, scene-for-scene, events that took place nearly a decade ago in this desolate Alaskan city.

Instead of briefly cutting to the “archived footage” from time to time, the film uses a split-screen method to assure us that the reenactments by Jovovich and other actors are word-for-word; you hear and see both the “footage” and the reenactments, aired side by side. This happens not just once, or twice, or a handful of times in the film, but in nearly every scene.

This would be neat if the events were in fact true and it was in fact footage. But it’s not. It’s like they made the same film twice. It’s like they could have just released a movie with exclusively the “footage” of the “real” Abigail Tyler and the interviews and experiences she endured, and it would have fared far better than this piece of over-intimated bullshit. Instances that should have been implicitly terrifying were rendered nearly unwatchable because you were watching duplications of the same scene, paired right beside each other.

Following the film’s release, ardent investigation by film and psychology pundits alike determined that Dr. Abigail Tyler is in all probability just a fabricated woman, played by a relatively unknown actress named Charlotte Milchard – no such sleep study was ever conducted. The film is not a reenactment of true events, it is sensationalized by the idea that it is a reenactment of true events. The evidence used is just as fictionalized as anything else about the film. Which --- okay. That’s all well and good. Many films have operated under the “truth” pretense without actually being true, and have moved successively through the years as valued pieces of art. The fundamental problem with The Fourth Kind is that it’s obsessed with manipulating its viewers. This has resulted in two versions of the same film, played at the same time. I hope no one ever attempts this style again.

I did my own investigation, and people familiar with or residing in Nome, Alaska do attest that there are a lot of missing people, more than there ought to be in one small town. But it is attributed to the combination of the dangerous, seething coastline and the location of bars dotted along said coastline; people are getting too drunk and stumbling off cliffs into the teeming ocean below, not being captured by white owls who are actually aliens. And for once, after sitting through this film, that explanation is far more palatable.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Semantics of Racism, and Why Conversation Can Change Everything

“I talk to David Wilson a few times a month. I actually talked to him yesterday,” David Wilson, a MSNBC documentary filmmaker said during a lecture at UMass Boston.

He was talking about the subject of his first film, his new friend David Wilson, a 62-year-old white man from rural North Carolina, who grew up in Caswell County.

The film, Meeting David Wilson, is a story about race relations, redemption, and a conversation between the great grandson of a slave and the great grandson of a slave-owner. It’s about the fallout from segregation.

Race matters deeply to the filmmaker David Wilson, who grew up in Newark New Jersey, in a district where neighbors rob their neighbors and children struggle just to make it through high school. More than two thirds of the friends Wilson grew up with are now either dead or in jail.

“Living in that context you begin to think that that is what it is to be black,” Wilson said. “In this film I wanted to explore what causes this insecurity in the black community.”

“For me, to be an African American was to be in this state of limbo. You have these perceptions of Africans as tribal savages or as Sally Struthers’s bloated children… And I never really felt like an American,” he said.

The desire to understand his ethnic identity brought Wilson to North Carolina, to a big white house on a former tobacco plantation, owned by another David Wilson who runs a chain of BBQ restaurants in Reidsville.

“I thought it was a mistake. I thought she’d written down my name and read it back to me,” Wilson said.

Filmmaker Wilson was visiting his great-aunt Sarah, who lived through World War Two and the Civil Rights Movement, when he discovered the plantation where his great grandfather had been a slave. In curiosity he called the city to find out who owned the property, and the woman who answered the phone gave him his own name.

David Wilson, the great grandson of John Jiles Wilson a slave owner on a plantation in North Carolina, had never heard of David Wilson before.

“We’ve been pitted against each other. He’s white. I’m black . . . We’re stuck discussing the semantics of racism.”

David Wilson, from Newark, got a phone number for David Wilson, from Reidsville, but he sat on the information for several months, nervous about what to say if he called. And when he built up the courage, the conversation went exactly as he thought it would.

“It was probably one of the most awkward conversations you can have. We talked for twenty minutes about the weather,” Wilson said.

But the phone call spawned the idea for the documentary.

“I wanted to show that you could have a conversation with someone about very uncomfortable things. And I wanted to show that the problem of low self-esteem is still prevalent in the black community,” Wilson said.

So David Wilson went back to North Carolina, and called David Wilson, the plantation owner, again.

As a child Wilson thought about race in the context of sitcoms like Diff’rent Strokes – a show where a white man, Mr. Drummond, adopts two black children and raises them in a middle class neighborhood.

“That seemed like the perfect life to me, and I spent my childhood waiting and wishing that somehow there would be a Mr. Drummond who would come and rescue me,” Wilson said.

These childhood fantasies were not a condemnation of his family but of the way he perceived his own skin tone, and David Wilson described them as a manifestation of his insecurity.

David Wilson’s family supported him, as he was one of the only people from his neighborhood to go to college on a scholarship. When he graduated, he landed a job in journalism at MSNBC.

While working in television he shot footage for Dateline and other documentary type shows. And as he matured, his personal interest in his ancestry multiplied.

Early on while filming his documentary, Wilson imitated Kenneth and Mamie Clark Place’s social experiment, placing a black baby doll and a white baby doll in front of an African American toddler, and asking him or her, which one would make a better playmate. The results were depressingly similar to the tests done in the 1940s. Each child would start the interview laughing, and after they chose the white baby doll as the better toy, they each looked as though they were about to cry.

“That was one of the most difficult scenes to shoot because you just wanted to go out from behind the camera, give the children hugs and tell them that they are worth so much more,” Wilson said.

David Wilson’s film discusses everything from civil rights to reformation to reparations. While filming the documentary, David Wilson said his perception of American history changed.

“Poverty, disease and ignorance, these are our enemies . . . the discriminating factor is money. Wealth,” David Wilson said. “One thing I realized while filming this movie is that our history, American history tells the story of triumph. It is not the story of the oppressed. It is the story of the victor.”

Meeting David Wilson, an MSNBC documentary is available for purchase at