Tag Archives: popular culture

To Tweet or Not to Tweet

By Marc Williams

In the first week of my Shakespeare Off the Page class in the BLS program, we discuss the development of the English language during Shakespeare’s era.  English, which was developing and expanding as colloquial language, was considered “lowbrow” by many 16th century traditional academics.  Shakespeare’s works, written in English of course, did much to legitimize the English language in spite of resistance from these traditionalists.    Shakespeare also coined many new words and phrases, contributing to a rapid expansion of English vocabulary that occurred during his lifetime.  One of my students gave the example of “eyeball,” a word that hadn’t been written in English until Shakespeare included it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Every semester, I ask my students to consider the coinage of new words today.  Students often cite technological advances as the source for new words:  after all, who knew what a “blog” was twenty years ago?

This week’s discussion reminded me of a story that surfaced last year about the New York Times.  Philip Corbett, the standards editor at the New York Times, issued a memo to staff writers that the word “tweet” should not appear in the newspaper if describing a posting on Twitter.  Corbett advised the word “tweet” should appear only if referring to the sound a bird makes.  It was widely reported that Corbett “banned” the word but “strongly discouraged” is probably a more accurate assessment of Corbett’s memo.  Regardless of the phrasing, Corbett was widely criticized for the move–Here is Corbett’s response to the criticism he received.

So here’s a major publisher–among the world’s most important authorities on trends and issues with American English–deliberately resisting the coinage and use of a new word.  I did a quick online search and found two dictionaries disagreeing with each other.  Here’s Webster, which does not provide a Twitter-based definition for “tweet.”

Noun            1. tweet – week chirping sound as of a small bird [sic]

Verb            1. tweet –make a weak, chirping sound; “the small bird was tweeting in the tree” Synonyms: twirp

Verb            2. tweet – squeeze tightly between the fingers; “He pinched her behind”; “She squeezed the bottle” Synonyms: nip, pinch, twinge, twitch, squeeze

Here’s Dictionary.com, complete with a reference to Twitter:

tweet – noun

1. a weak chirping sound, as of a young or small bird.

2. Digital Technology . a very short message posted on the Twitter Web site: the message may include text, keywords, mentions of specific users, links to Web sites, and links to images or videos on a Web site.

Corbett explains that if “tweet” ever becomes as common as “e-mail,” it will warrant reconsideration as a legitimate word.  But don’t we look to the New York Times, dictionaries, and other publications to confirm a word’s legitimacy and proper use?  If they won’t use the word in print, can it ever be legitimized?  Do publishers have an obligation to embrace and define new words?  Do they think of themselves as defenders of the English language?  What can be gained from refusing “tweet” and other new words admission into our vocabulary?

It’s Complicated

By Marc Williams

One side effect of the pervasiveness of technology on school age kids, as many have observed, is that young people consume technology at a surprisingly high rate.  Young people spend countless hours on cell phones–usually texting–as well as online, or in front of a television or video game.  Parents, schools, and advocacy groups have done much to curb tech usage among kids and teens, hoping to reduce teen alienation, “popcorn brain,” and other ill effects associated with constant internet and wireless gadget access.

Similarly, the Boston Health Commission recently sponsored a workshop for teens centered on a very particular socio-technological issue:  online breakups.

Late last month, 200 teenagers from Boston-area schools gathered to discuss the minutia of Facebook breakup etiquette. Should you delete pictures of your ex after splitting up? Is it O.K. to unfriend your last girlfriend if you can’t stop looking at her profile? And is it ever ethically defensible to change your relationship status to single without first notifying the person whose heart you’re crushing?

To be clear, we’re not talking about online dating services like Match.com or eHarmony.  These are teenagers who know each other and see each other at school every day.  When teens in a relationship decide the relationship should end, many of them go to Facebook and change their relationship status from “In a relationship” to “Single” or perhaps “It’s complicated.”  While changing the relationship status in and of itself may not seem unusual to social media users, the phenomena may seem a bit unsettling if the pair haven’t actually talked about their relationship ending.  Some teens are using their Facebook relationship status as a virtual breakup tool, avoiding the difficult “breakup discussion” altogether.  The Boston Health Commission’s workshop sought to bring awareness to the issue and provide some practical tools for handling breakups.

[Organizers] encouraged the crowd to eschew parting ways over text message or Facebook, the most common teen breakup methods. (A bisexual 15-year-old confessed in a morning session that she learned that her girlfriend of two years had dumped her only when she changed her relationship status to single.) Attendees were advised — with mixed results — to bravely confront the awkwardness of face-to-face breakups. When the facilitator in a session titled “Breakups 101” suggested that teenagers meet with “and come to an agreement or mutual understanding” with a soon-to-be ex, a skeptical 19-year-old nearly leapt out of her chair in protest. “So, you’re telling me that you’re crying at night, you’re not sleeping, you’re eating all this food to make you feel better, and you’re supposed to just come to an agreement?”

I’ve found that for many students, online interaction emboldens them.  In some cases, this is a good thing.  However, many students are able to type surprisingly insensitive things–both toward me and their classmates–that I doubt they would say in a face-to-face interaction.  This trend among young people concerns me as someone who teaches online courses. Do tomorrow’s (or even today’s) online students really know how to interact with their teachers or classmates?  Likewise, I wonder if I’m at risk of forgetting how to interact with them.

I provide my home phone number to my online students but very few ever actually call me at home.  While some may think it rude to call an instructor at home, I wonder how many students are simply avoiding a difficult conversation.  If students have concerns about their grade, for example, will they actually pick up the phone to talk to me about it?  Or will they simply write something nasty about me in a course evaluation, avoiding the potential unpleasantness of live interaction?  And I certainly must consider if I use technology to hide from unpleasantness as well.

Are You Ready for Some Football?

By Marc Williams

I’ll begin by confessing that I am among America’s truly die-hard football fans.  I follow football throughout the year, even though the season only lasts about four months.  Serious fans like me are thrilled this morning: the NFL’s 130+ day lockout appears to be ending today following months of intense negotiations.

During the past few months, analysts have criticized both owners and players in news articles and fans have sounded off on sports talk radio.  Given America’s economic struggles, how could these sides complain about having to share $9 billion in revenues?  While the owners initiated the lockout, most of the criticism I heard seemed to be directed at the “overpaid” NFL players.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, left, and NFL Players Association Director DeMaurice Smith, right.

Listening to talk radio over the past 130 days, I often heard fans suggesting, “the players should be more grateful–I’ll go play football for a fraction of what those guys make.”  Every time I listened to the radio, I heard someone cite his $30K salary, how hard he works, and how happy he’d be to play football for the minimum NFL rookie salary, which was $325,000 in 2010.  What many fans fail to realize is that these players earn a minimum of $325,000 because they have specific skills and physical attributes that are exceedingly rare and have found a way to capitalize on those traits.

Consider one of my favorite players, wide receiver Calvin Johnson, as an example.  In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt covered the first 40m of his record-breaking 100m run at a speed of 8.6m/second.  When Calvin Johnson was entering the 2007 NFL draft, he was timed at a similar distance at about 8.4m/second, only slightly behind Bolt’s pace. These numbers are especially notable since Bolt, the 100-meter world record-holder, weighs only 198 pounds while Johnson weighs almost 240 pounds. Further, Johnson is 6’5” and has a 42” vertical leap (four inches better than NBA star Kobe Bryant’s). Johnson, like most NFL athletes, possesses not only exceptional football skills but also a rare combination of size and athleticism.

While these physical attributes are indeed rare, many argue that twenty year-olds have no business earning so much money for simply playing a game.  After all, many of us go to school, earn degrees, work from the bottom-up in our chosen fields, taking years to earn promotions and raises, and never approach the $325,000 minimum NFL rookie salary.  Is this evidence that something is out of whack?

Shakespeare

Perhaps what is truly out of whack is the notion that education, job skills, and a lifetime of service should entitle one to fame or a generous salary.  Consider Shakespeare as an example.  Unlike most of the successful poets and playwrights of the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare was not college educated.  His success generated enormous jealousy from writers who had “paid their dues” through university education.  To this day, there are scholars dedicated to attributing Shakespeare’s work to other individuals from Francis Bacon to Queen Elizabeth herself, arguing that an uneducated son of a glove maker couldn’t possibly be the author of Hamlet and King Lear.

 In my BLS course on Shakespeare, we discuss this “authorship question,” a premise I dismiss as snobbery.  Perhaps Shakespeare was simply brilliant; an individual with exceptional skills who was creative enough to find a way to apply and capitalize on those skills.  Mozart composed his first opera when he was twelve years old—there is no accounting for that kind of genius.  Isn’t the same true of professional athletes? When we express jealousy about the financial success of professional athletes, are we jealous of their unique gifts or are we jealous because we haven’t figured out what to do with our own talents?

Usain Bolt breaks the world record in the 100 meters, Beijing 2008:

Calvin Johnson in action:

Is the Future of Racing a Thing of the Past?

By Jay Parr

NASCAR

As anyone who has made the mistake of taking I-85 past Concord on a race day knows, NASCAR is one of the largest professional sporting organizations in the country. Major events draw more than a hundred thousand spectators to the stands, and sometimes millions of viewers watching from home or their favorite sports bar. Total revenues are in the billions of dollars, and the revenues of the top teams are in the tens of millions of dollars apiece. It’s a huge business.

We tend to think of auto racing as being at the forefront of high-performance technology, but that’s not actually the case in NASCAR. The regulations in that organization dictate that the cars must be front engine and rear wheel drive, despite the fact that the street versions of those cars are almost all front-wheel drive. But it doesn’t stop there. The engines must have carburetors, not the fuel injection of most cars on the road today. They must be naturally aspirated, so they can’t have the turbochargers that are becoming so common in passenger cars today. They must have pushrod-operated valves, so they can’t even have the overhead cams found in a twenty-year-old Saturn. Far from being at the leading edge of engine technology, NASCAR engines use hundred-year-old technology that is arguably fifty years out of date.

Tour de France

Auto racing is not the only racing sport where the rules place big restrictions on the technology used. If you’ve ever watched the Tour de France or any other major bicycle race, you may have noticed that all the bikes look almost identical. That is not a coincidence, and it is not because the bike you see is the best configuration for performance. Nearly a century ago, shortly after the familiar diamond-framed “safety bicycle” took over popularity from the dangerous old high-wheeled “ordinary bicycle,” a Frenchman by the name of Charles Mochet designed the first commercially-produced recumbent bicycle. The rider sat back as if on a chaise lounge, with his feet stretched out in front of him and the rear wheel behind his back. It won several major races, and in 1934 it broke the one-hour world record when his rider covered 28 miles—and the wins and the record were all piloted by second-tier cyclists. At their very next meeting, the International Cyclist’s Union (UCI) decided that recumbent bicycles could not compete against diamond-framed bicycles in any major bicycle race. That is why you never see a recumbent bicycle in the Tour de France—despite the fact that they’re faster, more aerodynamic, more comfortable to race, and much safer in an accident.

Recumbent bicycles

In both of these racing venues—motorized and human-powered—political decisions have kept the sport from evolving toward superior technologies. The philosophy in both cases is to put the emphasis on human competition, but the technological ramifications reach far beyond the racetrack. In the past, the highly-funded and competitive environment of racing has led to major advances in both efficiency and safety. Your brake lights, rear-view mirrors, seat belts, and radial tires were all pioneered in race cars, as were many other features you take for granted, like the side-impact bars in your doors, the fuel injection that has doubled your gas mileage, and the variable timing advance that allows your engine to run efficiently at a wide variety of RPMs. Even on a dime-store bicycle, the gearing and brake technology were perfected in the racing world before trickling down to the kids’ beater bikes.

Restricting the natural advance of racing technology has a negative impact, not only on racing sports, but on the society as a whole. Consumer technology tends to mimic high-performance technology, and to benefit from high-tech advances in a trickle-down effect. Imagine how the world might look if the UCI had forbidden the chain-driven safety bicycle. Would the serious cyclists be teetering around on top of huge 54-inch wheels? Would we be afraid to teach our children to ride bikes for fear they might take a header and break their necks? Now, imagine it the other way, if the UCI had not forbidden the recumbent. Would most of us be cruising around on comfy lawn chairs? Would we stare in amusement when we saw one of those old dangerous head-first relics? Would our kids be more likely to land on a nice soft buttock instead of a fragile face or wrist when they dumped their bikes?

What if NASCAR technology had been allowed to develop unchecked? Pit stops happen on the clock, so it’s entirely conceivable that racing engineers would have poured a lot of attention into increasing fuel efficiency to minimize those stops. If they had been allowed to experiment unchecked, would we have race cars that could complete a 600-mile race on ten gallons of fuel? Imagine how that technology would trickle down to a little Nissan on the highway. Think about that next time you’re fueling up for that trip down I-85.

Cyclist Sam Whittingham exceeds 82 mph in a streamlined recumbent bicycle.

Maybe Almost Probably the End of Harry Potter (perhaps)

By Marc Williams

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II

The eighth and final installment of the Harry Potter film series is to be released this week, one of the most eagerly anticipated films in years.  It has generated excitement reminiscent of the release of the second generation of Star Wars films.  Indeed, tickets for Friday’s opening began selling out in the U.S. several days ago–a week ahead of the July 15 premiere–making it one of the fastest-selling films ever.

The opening is bittersweet for many fans who would like to see the series continue and at the July 7 London premiere of the final film, author J.K. Rowling left open the possibility of future Potter stories. While her statement doesn’t indicate that more stories are imminent, the possibility is tantalizing for fans.

In the meantime, serious fans await Rowling’s online venture, Pottermore, which won’t be fully available to the public until October but promises some new Potter content that has not been previously available.

Here’s J.K. Rowling on Pottermore:

Fans can also visit Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, home of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a very impressive theme park treatment of Rowling’s vision that allows fans to immerse themselves in the world of Potter.

It’s Not Just for Who Anymore?

By Marc Williams

A funny thing happened on the way to my DVR.  I watched the 2011 Tony Awards and enjoyed it.

Here’s a little back story:  my background is in theatre as both an actor and director.  When I was studying theatre as an undergraduate and for a few years after that, I always watched the Tony Awards live and always enjoyed them.  However, the Tony Awards has been holding on by a thread to its relationship with CBS due to historically low ratings.

In order to boost ratings, the American Theatre Wing has spent the past decade trying to validate the Tonys as a major celebrity event.  The Tonys looked to Hollywood, borrowing their celebrities for Broadway’s big night. Whichever Hollywood star happened to be on Broadway that season was begged to attend and present awards at the Tonys.  In 2004, for example, Sean Combs, Renee Zellweger, Nicole Kidman, and Scarlett Johansson presented awards—and their presence was endlessly emphasized by the broadcast.  Theatre icons like Helen Mirren and Joel Grey were virtually ignored.  This, to me, was not a celebration of Broadway but rather a desperate attempt to make Broadway seem relevant to a broad audience.  I understand the desperation.  In my BLS classes, we discuss the role of theatre in a variety of historical eras, including our own.  While students connect intellectually and emotionally to the plays we study, many students have trouble conceptualizing the texts as live performances; and that’s no surprise, really, because many students have never been to the theatre.

The Tony broadcasts of the past decade have literally begged the television audience to visit Broadway, using the glamor of Hollywood to sell its appeal.  These efforts have always seemed disingenuous to me.  Why can’t Broadway showcase its own stars?  If the work is solid and well-executed in the broadcast, surely audiences will want to see it in person. On these grounds, I’ve refused to watch the live broadcasts for the past few years.  I recorded them on my DVR and watched a few days or weeks later, skipping through all the stuff that I knew would annoy me. A few days ago, I watched the 2011 ceremony, which had aired live on June 12.

Host Neil Patrick Harris delivered an opening number that smacked the Tonys back into reality, both acknowledging and poking fun at the theatre’s niche audience.

The opening number even acknowledged that Al Pacino is “too famous” to participate in the song’s gag.  And I can’t imagine previous broadcasts would have mentioned Joe Mantello’s presence in the opening number–it was a joke only theatre fans could love. It was clear that the 2011 ceremony would be different from the recent broadcasts that had so annoyed me—and indeed it was different.  I watched every second of the broadcast, as it celebrated Broadway and avoided phony attempts to legitimize theatre’s place in popular culture.  I even found myself laughing hysterically at what appears to be Broadway’s biggest hit in years, The Book of Mormon (a new musical written by South Park co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone).

I immediately went to my computer to try to score a pair of tickets and plan a trip to New York.  I thought to myself, “yes! This is exactly what a Tony broadcast ought to make us do.”  The Tonys didn’t beg me to come to Broadway; they showed me something that I actually want to see.  I don’t know if next year’s Tony Awards will be as genuine as the 2011 ceremony but I am hopeful.

A side note:  I didn’t score tickets to The Book of Mormon.  The show is nearly sold out for the next six months.