Monday, 23 September 2013

If Dr Seuss books were titled according to their subtexts...

C.S. Lewis famously said, "A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.” This is so very true. For me, this is especially true when it comes to bedtime stories, as the kid has the habit of requesting a current favourite book over and over again (see here for example). 

This can get a little trying at times, but there are some books that I honestly don't mind reading again and again and among them is anything by Dr Seuss. Besides being really fun to read aloud, there is so much more going on below the surface. I came across a post about "if Dr Seuss books were titled according to their subtexts" on 22Words the other day and LOVED them. Here are some of my favourites:

Images from BuzzFeed

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Should we care about incomplete verbs and noun cases?

It wasn't until the above collection of vintage school books came into my hands that I considered the fact that "became" is an incomplete verb as it needs a word following it to complete the sense, for example: "She became angry" ("She became" wouldn't really make any sense).

I also found out from these school books that English has an element of noun cases (like German), although it doesn't really affect the language at all except for in the possessive. Cases (come from Latin) and reveal the relationship of one noun to another in the sentence, and in a language like German, articles, pronouns and adjectives are inflected to indicate this relationship (these inflections are also dependent on gender)... never mind, thankfully, English, is much simpler.

I know I'm a little weird about grammar, but I read this with great interest. This particular book was aimed at Standard 7 & 8 (now called Grade 9 & 10). It states quite cheerfully: "We have now dealt with all the cases used in English (or not used - my words). They may be summarised as follows:
  • nominative case - noun or pronoun, subject of a sentence
  • accusative case - noun or pronoun, object of a sentence, noun or pronoun following a preposition
  • genitive case - noun or pronoun showing possession
  • dative case - noun or pronoun acting as indirect object of a sentence"
Then follows Exercise 4 which lists 20 sentences where students have to "name the case of the nouns and pronouns and give the reason". This task couldn't have demonstrated any better just how far language teaching has come since then! 

While it's quite easy to snigger at the pointlessness of learning extinct bits of grammar, I can't help wondering if maybe we haven't crossed the line too far in the opposite direction. I say this because it's not uncommon for students to get through school without knowing what a "verb" is (never mind transitive or intransitive). 

I've always thought there's something solid and dependable about a big, fat grammar book. It's not everyone's cup of tea, of course, and I do also acknowledge that the primary aim of learning language is communication. Grammar should therefore support this aim, not usurp it for its own sake. While learning grammar may appear intimidating at first, I believe that having a workable understanding of the structures of your home language is necessary in school. Not to mention how this knowledge in the home language makes the lives of second and foreign language teachers that much easier! 

So does that mean we should care about incomplete verbs and noun cases? I don't know... hmm, maybe a little? 

Friday, 13 September 2013

The first summer storm

The first summer storm rumbles across the afternoon; it's the kind of thunder that sounds round and friendly like the purring of a cat. For me it's always the first sign of change. A purple-clouded sky hangs heavy like drapery yet somehow the sunlight manages to shine through, soaking everything with a diffused light. Then the rain starts, slowly at first. The raindrops are fat and heavy and go 'splat' on the ground until there are too many of them and everything gets dark and wet. The downpour releases the smells of summer out of the parched ground and makes me think of humid evenings spent on the veranda. And then, just as suddenly as it started, it is over. The clouds pull back, the sun casts afternoon shadows again and all that remains is the drip-drip of raindrops through foliage.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Heather Feather and the bizarre pull of ASMR

The other night I discovered a particularly strange corner of the internet. Picture this: a young, attractive but overwhelmingly sweet woman stares into the camera. It's a close-up shot so her eyes are mesmerising and you can stare in a way that would be too intimate if she were looking at you in real life. Her eyes are outlined with black eyeliner and they ooze a fresh kind of sincerity and concern for you. They indicate that you are the primary focus of her attention. She begins to speak in a whisper. All you hear are the intimate sounds of lips parting, of delicate words being carefully formed. You get the feeling that this woman thinks before she speaks and that what she is saying is meant especially for you. What she is whispering to you are little known facts about animals. The video is at least half an hour long (you can watch Heather Feather in action here).

Another video is set up like an interior design consultation where the young woman, dressed in a nondescript business suit, speaks gently and sincerely about flooring, curtaining and wall colours. She then shows you laminate flooring samples and clicks her manicured nails across their textured surfaces in a way that is bizarrely pleasant. This video goes on for an hour and 15 minutes (you can watch it here).

Welcome to the strange world of ASMR.

Know your defines ASMR as "Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) [and] is a term used to describe a sensory experience characterised by a pleasant tingling sensation in the head and scalp, which can be triggered by sounds like whispering or brushing, and visual stimulus like painting or drawing. On YouTube, the phenomenon inspired the creation of 'whisperer' videos, in which people attempt to trigger the viewer's ASMR by speaking in a soft voice and making various sounds with inanimate objects." It has alternatively been called brain orgasm, brain massage, head tingles, to name just a few.

When I was in first year of university I took a Sociology course called Introduction to Human Sexuality. More than the content, what stayed with me was the idea that absolutely anything could be studied and learned about. Coming out of a rather restrictive school syllabus, this was mind-blowing to me at the time and has gone on to feed a curiosity about understanding the idiosyncrasies and trends that make up our social world (or virtual world in this case).

There isn't much research on ASMR, but while there is no scientific explanation for the experience, there is something undeniable about its effects. People claim it helps them deal with stress, anxiety and insomnia. On ASMR Hub, a site dedicated to all things ASMR, you can search for videos based on preferences such as voice level, accent, different types of role play and sound triggers such as clicking, page turning, rustling etc. These things make you  wonder what neurological and psychological process are going on to produce a pleasure response.

And yes, it's kind of creepy and one can't help noticing the parallels between the online searching for triggers that elicit a physical response and porn. The thing is, it's not porn, but it's hard to know what to call it. The common theme is a young woman (usually) paying special attention to the viewer through a variety of mundane role playing scenarios ranging from ear-to-ear whispering to having your hair cut at the hairdresser. Their gentleness and concern and focus are intoxicating and the soft-spoken whispering implies not only favourable aspects of character, but a kind of physical intimacy too.

The internet is a strange and very diverse place. The rising popularity of internet searches for ASMR (according to Google) is probably also an indicator of unfulfilled searches for gentleness,calm and personal attention in the real world.

Friday, 6 September 2013

It's a book!

In his simple, yet incredibly smart book It's a book, Lane Smith (of Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales fame) has created a wonderful little weapon in the battle between book and technology. The story is simple: Monkey is reading a book and Jackass walks in and asks:

Jackass is very interested and begins poking questions at Monkey, who is very much engrossed in his book and keeps having to respond "it's a book" to some rather silly questions.

Jackass tries to understand by comparing it to his laptop, which seems to be the sum total of his frame of reference for reading.

Anyway, Monkey lends Jackass the book and before you know it, Jackass is hooked, unable to stop turning the pages. Yay, there is a happy ending!

I'm afraid that for many children (even tertiary students) these days picking up a book and reading it is so out of their frame of reference that they, like Jackass, can't relate to the experience at all. I've known people who manage to get through school without ever reading a book and they then encounter having to read a novel at university with great resistance because reading has become such a foreign, rusty, out-of-practice act.

This little book is a fabulous reminder that no technology can beat the simplicity of opening a book, feeling the pages between your fingers and diving right in. You don't need a password, you don't need to recharge it and just maybe, maybe, you will find yourself unable to put it down!

Sunday, 1 September 2013


What did I spend my time doing this weekend?

I went to the fun fair and tried to find ANN 7 (Africa News Network) bloopers on YouTube. Besides both being highly entertaining, these two activities may or may not be related (I'm still exploring the parallels). Anyway, when I thought of writing a blog post the two seemed to fit together nicely. So anyway, here is my weekend round-up.

I was super excited to ride the carousel and attempt to capture the carnivalesque and the colour with my camera. The great thing about being at a fun fair and having a kid is, that you can get away with sitting on a carousel, laughing your head off and no one gives you funny looks.

Back to ANN 7 then. I haven't owned a TV since 2009 and haven't missed it at all, until about two weeks ago when ANN 7 launched. This has been the first time that I have felt deprived of entertainment, probably because I couldn't catch up on the hype by googling it as the sneaky buggers from the Gupta/Zuma empire have been paying a lot of money to have it removed off YouTube on the grounds of copyright breech. What I did manage to find was highly entertaining as well as informative, as I learned a lot about live broadcasting because you get to see all the things that can go wrong.

For those who haven't had the pleasure yet, ANN 7 was launched as a new South African 24 hour news channel. The full effect of the stumbling incompetence is beyond my reach as a writer and as linking to YouTube would be futile, I shall link to the brilliant spoof on The Gatsby which captures in print exactly what you see on screen. I highly recommend giving it a read.

And once you've stopped laughing, maybe it's worth considering that the ANN 7 models/news anchors are in fact highly trained actors working for a deeply satirical show that most of us just don't "get". This is the new news: unrehearsed, unplanned, untrained, unscripted, unexpected. Over the top? Definitely.

After two disastrous weeks, my advice to salvage the channel would be to keep it up. They've found a new, very entertaining niche. But then again, what do I know about TV?


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