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Archive for February, 2010

Today’s NPR story on the relationship between weight loss, emotions, and hormones called leptin revealed how far we have come in our understanding of food and our bodies–and how far we still have to go.  In “Rational or Emotional? Your Brain on Food,” Columbia University Medical Center researchers reveal that weight loss can cause both a slower metabolism (which can make it harder to burn calories) and lowered levels of leptin–a hormone that works to control appetite.  It turns out that when people who have lost weight are given injections of leptin they have more activity in their brains in areas “associated with conscious decisions.”  While the study isn’t definitive, the report suggests that increasing these hormone levels may help people who have lost weight make better decisions to keep that weight off in the future.

Who wouldn’t be excited about an injection that could enhance will power, especially in keeping off that hard fought few pounds?  But will it, really?  For this we have to look at the method.  Researchers measured people’s will power by giving them an MRI and then showing them various plastic containers of foods–gummy worms, candies, cookies, bell peppers–and measuring brain activity as they contemplated the yumminess (or lackthereof) in the items.  But how many of us confront that moment of food choice (bell peppers or gummy worms, hmm…) while laying in a scanner staring at slow-moving food separated in plastic bins?  Aren’t we in fact making food choices in precisely the opposite conditions–standing in chaotic fast food lines, ordering from menus with one hand on the iphone, managing crying children or chatty friends, just after breaking up with girlfriends, while walking the aisles with hundreds of brightly packaged jumbled munchies vying for our attention?

Studies like the one at Columbia are essential if we want to understand the complex ways in which our bodies react to appetite stimulation, and we should.  Still, we need to see them for what they are: questions asked and answered in a vacuum.  The reporter herself acknowledges this when she opens the piece recalling the overwhelming smell of peanuts sold by a street vendor that challenge her calorie resolve, even in the midst of the story.  Would those peanuts have impacted her the same way in the MRI tube with a set of researchers well aware of “good food choices” watching her reactions?  We live in a complex culture and it is there that our food choices are made.  We can isolate the data in the lab and come up with technological solutions, but these are only going to address part of the problem.  And they may make new problems all their own.  We need to study food where we eat it–in the real world. For that we need scholars trained in socio-cultural aspects of food production and food choice, and scientists ready to bring them on board.

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A number of media stories have appeared recently dissecting the ways in which technology and social networks have transformed our culture of dating, romance, and breaking up.  For example, a few days ago NPR reported on “Digital Tears: Breakups and Social Networks,” the New Yorker online ran a short piece on “The Importance of Email to Romance,” and on Valentine’s Day, one writer’s personal story about Facebook heartache was published in the L.A. Times under the title, “Relationships in the Digital Age.”  Granted, the appearance of these stories has conveniently coincided with our national marketing of Valentine’s Day.  Nevertheless, they are interesting to consider for their articulation of concerns about the rapid and often uncomfortable ways in which technology seems to be influencing our ideas about romance and especially the end of romance.

Historically, of course, new technologies have always impacted our cultural construction of romance as well as our everyday experience of it.  The massive expansion of the U.S. postal system in the 19th century greatly facilitated the writing, sending, and receiving of romantic letters on a regular basis.  The automobile completely changed rituals of courtship and dating.  The telephone, electronic mail, and now social networks have similarly transformed how romantic partners communicate with one another (and how they expect to communicate).

What these recent stories suggest is that, while our latest online technologies can make romance feel more immediate, exciting, and accelerated, they have also made breaking up a rather drawn-out, tortuous experience.  The multiple connections that romantic partners establish via online technology become difficult to sever and the information provided by these connections often becomes difficult to stomach.  On remaining socially networked to exes, for instance, one interviewee in the NPR segment said, “It’s basically like stabbing yourself in the heart again every four hours or so.”  The L.A. Times writer used a similar metaphor when contemplating whether he should stay Facebook friends with his ex: “Seeing her updates and knowing I wasn’t in the inner circle anymore would be like another knife in the heart.”

I see two themes emerging from these stories.  The first is of access.  With the overwhelming access to information that the Internet has afforded us, we have lost a sense of propriety.  We have come to feel entitled to full access to information about our partner as well, no matter how early in the relationship—or no matter if the relationship has ended.  The second theme is of remorse.  There is a price we pay for making our private lives so incredibly public online.  Amidst our current debates over corporate and government invasions of privacy, be it the Patriot Act or Google Buzz or Facebook, we sometimes forget that we also willingly put ourselves out there, often too soon and too much in focus.

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Just in case you thought that all the talk about the changing media landscape was only threatening the future of newspapers, sit-coms, and books, MTV’s recent decision to drop its “music television” tagline indicates that change is afoot in all quarters. MTV, the upstart cable network that killed the radio star when it launched in 1981, seems, in 2009, to have killed the music star, too.

(For an inside history of the logos, see Rolling Stone’s coverage here)

Tina Exarhos, executive vice president of marketing and multiplatform creative projects, told The NY Daily News, “Music is still at the heart of everything we do, but it’s about a lot more now.” It’s a strange statement, really, affirming the centrality of music while also exiling it to MTV’s marginal siblings (MTV2, MTVU, and so on).

More than just an indication of the shift in the network’s focus (a shift that has been well underway for some time), it confirms the centrality of music as a signifier, but the marginality of music as something one might actually listen to, play, hum, see performed live, or otherwise participate in. “Music,” in Exharos’ formulation doesn’t pertain to music made of notes, but rather music made of ideas, symbols, and suggestions of what’s cool, cutting edge, hip, or maybe even interesting. But it’s not about strings of notes or revolutions of turntables.

What is the world of media coming to when even music television isn’t about music anymore? I guess the change in MTV’s logo means that my television will return to being a television, and I can return to my stereo (or ipod, headphones, or even my own guitar) with a newly recovered sense of where music rather belongs.

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On Howard Zinn

My journal entry from April 17, 1997: “Bought Zinn’s Can’t Be Neutral.  Ate a heavy calzone and too much garlic bread.  At Wordsworth books in Harvard Square, someone asked the clerk where he could find books on marionettes.”

In this rather unremarkable fashion, Howard Zinn’s memoir entered my life, equally sharing diary space that day with food and puppets.  I had already read and reveled in A People’s History of the United States, thanks to a colleague who had recommended it, but I knew little of Zinn the man.  You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times introduced me to Zinn the teacher, the activist, the historian.  I have reread sections of that book many times since then.  So last week, the first thing I thought of when I heard that Zinn had passed away was the experience of reading that book thirteen years ago.

I read Can’t Be Neutral as I was finishing up my third and final year of teaching high school English at a private boarding school in New Hampshire.  Those three years had constituted a kind of intellectual awakening for me that Zinn’s autobiography capped off perfectly.  I was reading widely and often during my tenure as a secondary teacher—books by Albert Murray, Cornel West, C.S. Lewis, Sven Birkets, bell hooks, Michel Foucault, Theodore Sizer, Jonathan Kozol, Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Jane Smiley, J.M. Coetzee, Alice Walker, John Irving, Toni Morrison.  These theorists, critics, and novelists constantly filled my head with ideas and inspired me to fill my journals with amateur stabs at cultural analysis.  But it was Zinn that focused my wayward reading habits for me.

Zinn prompted me to conceptualize how I could translate everything that I was reading and growing passionate about into a classroom teaching practice.  He helped me see how my writing and research interests could complement my teaching, rather than remain separate from it.  Moreover, he helped me understand that my own life experience, my own ideas about the world, my own beliefs did not necessarily have to be disconnected from what I did in the classroom.  This may seem like an obvious proposition to many in academia today, but for me, at the time, as a twenty-something high school teacher contemplating applying to Ph.D. programs, this was a revelation.  I found Zinn’s passion, his zest for teaching history, contagious.  That fall, I applied to graduate school.  I thought the field of American Studies seemed like just the place where I could put my new ideas about research and teaching into practice.  As it turns out, I was right.

I always find it interesting how certain books come into our lives at particular moments.  How we choose to buy that one book instead of any other in the store.  How we pull that one book off of our shelf—the one that has been collecting dust for years, one of many we have never read—and glance at the first few pages and suddenly leap in.  How we then integrate that book into our everyday life at that exact moment, using it to help us make sense of our world.  I’m grateful that I picked up Can’t Be Neutral when I did.

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