Thursday, June 23, 2011

Mini University 2011: Day 4

Like any conference, Mini University sometimes serves up a dud -- a session that doesn't hold my interest and/or doesn't meet my expectations in some way. Today, though, I lucked out with three great sessions in a row (and a Bloomington Bagel lunch in between).

This morning, Jess and I both headed to "Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and All the Rest: Great Jazz Singers," taught by legendary professor and musician David Baker. Every year this seems to be the best-attended session of the conference, and I always feel sorry for the other presenters in Baker's time slot.

We started by talking about Crosby, who was really the first "pop" star, Baker said, because he appealed to listeners in a wide range of musical genres. The microphone was invented at that time, and Crosby invented the new, more intimate singing style that was quickly copied by everyone else in the industry. The result: 43 No. 1 hits, more than Elvis and the Beatles combined.

We also talked about Armstrong, who styled his voice after the rhythms of his trumpet. Many tried to copy this singing style, too, but no one really succeeded, Baker said. Armstrong also helped transition jazz from an ensemble genre to one that accommodated soloists. As always, Baker played us a number of Armstrong hits, including "Hello, Dolly" and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off."

After lunch, Jess and I headed to "WikiLeaks and the Future of Journalism in America." Professor Hans Ibolt explained Julian Assange's background (including his legendary reputation -- and criminal conviction -- as a hacker), and we discussed the WikiLeaks milestones from its founding in 2006 to its massive recent release of State Department documents.

The journalism community is divided on WikiLeaks, so we weren't sure where our professor would land. He did point out a few questions we should be asking about WikiLeaks before giving it our full support:
  • What criteria guide WikiLeaks' decision to release specific documents? What weight (if any) is given to concerns of privacy and/or national security?
  • Who is funding this nonprofit organization and why?
  • Who are the "accredited" journalists on the WikiLeaks staff, and why do they insist on anonymity?
  • What process does WikiLeaks use to vet/verify the documents it receives?
Another issue with defining WikiLeaks as a media outlet is its motivation. We typically expect our journalists to be unbiased, but WikiLeaks apparently has a clear anti-establishment bias. Does that affect whether we are willing to call this a journalistic enterprise?

On the other hand, the U.S. government is considering charging Assange with crimes under the Espionage Act of 1917 -- which has never in history been used to prosecute a publisher. Even if you disagree with what WikiLeaks does, you have to admit this is a troubling slippery slope.

End result: I need to think about this one a bit more.

My final class of the day was "'Merchant of Venice' and Early English Antisemitism," with professor Ellen MacKay. I really enjoyed this one, and I'll post a more detailed analysis later today over on the Shakespeare blog. Key takeaway: Shakespeare was working in a culture rampant with antisemitism, and he created a character who reflected some Jewish stereotypes but refuted others. He also allowed Shylock to introduce some biting critiques of society, taking him beyond the usual Jewish caricature.

I can hardly believe it, but tomorrow is graduation day here at Mini University. We have one more session in the morning, followed by our graduation ceremony -- where Jess and I are likely to be the only two people singing the proper ending to the fight song. Oh, well. These 398 retirees already think we're strange.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Mini University 2011: Day 3

On day three of Mini University, Jessica wins the prize for choosing the best session: An in-depth look at the political situation in Iraq and what role the U.S. continues to play there. We both feel woefully uninformed in this area, so I enjoyed hearing the summary during dinner.

I, meanwhile, was in a session about major Supreme Court decisions in the past 40 years, with an emphasis on how the court has balanced individual liberties and executive/legislative powers. I always attend this professor's lectures at Mini U, and she always shares solid information in an engaging way, but I still wish I'd gone to that Iraq class instead.

After a working lunch, I headed to my first afternoon session: "The Biology of Genetically Modified Organisms." In the past few years, I've accidentally become a composting/recycling/organic-buying/yoga-doing/meditating hippie, but I still feel ambivalent about GMOs, and I hoped this class would clear up my confusion.

I did learn a lot. For example, the vast majority of American corn and soybeans are genetically modified, and one company (Monsanto) has a monopoly on both the GMO seeds and the herbicide that is designed to work with those seeds. That concerns me, as does the fact that the genetic material in these plants can "drift" to native plants and organic farms. GMOs may also contribute to herbicide-resistant weeds and pesticide-resistant bugs, and when we transfer genetic material from one organism to another, we may also be transferring allergens or other potentially harmful materials.

On the flip side, GMOs are cheaper and easier to produce, requiring less herbicide and pesticide and using fewer fossil fuels in farm equipment. Because GMOs require less tilling, these farms have fewer erosion problems. Perhaps most important, GMOs lead to higher and more reliable yields -- a very good thing when we're struggling to feed the world's growing population.

The result: I know more about GMOs than I did before, but I still feel ambivalent. I think I'd prefer to keep them out of my own diet, but beyond that I'm not willing to pick sides (yet).

My final class of the day was "Shakespeare in Performance," taught by a seasoned Shakespearean actress rather than a scholar. It was interesting to think about the Bard's work from that perspective, especially to hear about the types of preparation that go into playing a Shakespearean role. She also encouraged the class to think of their Shakespearean education as a lifetime continuum. "If you are in love with Shakespeare, you'll be in love with him your whole life," she said. "The more you learn, the more there is to learn."

Here, I think, I found a kindred spirit.

Mini University 2011: Days 1 and 2

Here I am once again at Mini University, and I'm having such a lovely time that I flat out forgot to do my blog post yesterday. So, we'll play a bit of catch-up today, and then I'll be on track for the rest of the week ... assuming I can pry myself away from Irish Lion puffballs, Laughing Planet burritos and Village Deli fries.

So, this is the 40th anniversary of Mini University, and the same 400 people have been coming that whole time. It's almost impossible to get into Mini U, and once you do, you come every year until you die. Three years ago, somebody died, and I got in. Last year, I was able to write in Jessica as my "+1." Sixty years from now, when they give the award to the person who's been coming the longest, I'm sooo going to win.

Unfortunately, the high level of loyalty means that Jess and I are the only attendees younger than 40, and we're among just a handful of students younger than 65. Translation: We have to pick our Mini U sessions very carefully, because we don't want to get stuck in a health-care seminar about reducing our stroke risk or in a tech seminar about Twitter that features confused questions about the tubes that connect the Internets.

So far, we're doing pretty well. I started my day yesterday with a lecture on the search for Earth-like planets in the Milky Way galaxy. We talked about five methods used for detecting planets, and then she shared the results: There are 70 million Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone (not to mention the zillions of other galaxies), and about 1 million of those are in the "sweet spot" in terms of distance from their suns. Statistically speaking, there's no way we're alone here.

My next session yesterday was called "The Political Future of the Death Penalty in America," and it was fascinating. The biggest takeaway: Our current death-penalty system is broken, but no one will take responsibility for fixing it. Those in favor of the death penalty don't want to change it because they perceive reform as "chipping away" at death-penalty statutes. Those who oppose the death penalty don't want to fix it because the more broken it is, the easier it is to make it disappear altogether. No comment.

Next up: "Great American Trials." The key takeaway here: We tend to become captivated by trials that help us address larger issues in our society (e.g., addressing racial tensions via the O.J. Simpson case).

This morning, Jess and I arrived at the Union with mere seconds to spare, Starbucks lattes in hand, and started another full day of learning.

First on my schedule was a fascinating class, "Mexican Immigration to the United States: Rhetoric and Reality." We learned that almost everything politicians claim about immigration is patently false. The reality: Undocumented workers from Mexico actually pay more in taxes than do U.S. citizens in proportion to the government services they use. (They pay sales taxes through purchases, property taxes via their rental rates and income taxes, often via fake Social Security numbers.)

Undocumented Mexican workers are also five times less likely to commit a crime than U.S. citizens. Conservative pundits have been trotting around a statistic that illegal immigrants comprise 25 percent of the federal prison population. That's true, but it's also misleading. Federal prisoners make up only 6 percent of the total prison population, which is primarily controlled by states. And, most of the federal prisoners they're talking about are in prison for immigration violations, not because they committed some other crime. We used to just deport them. Now we stick them in prison and label them criminals.

Another fact: Undocumented workers actually create jobs in the U.S. (beyond the jobs they fill) by buying goods and services and by enabling industries that wouldn't exist without them (especially agriculture). They are doing jobs that Americans aren't willing to do, especially because the U.S. population in general is more highly skilled these days.

Even if these things are true, why don't the Mexican workers just come to the country through legal means? Our immigration quota is so low that the U.S. is just now processing Mexican immigration applications from 1993 -- 18 years ago. If you were struggling to feed your family, would you fill out a bunch of forms and happily wait two decades?

Obviously, this was a fascinating session, and it was nice to get the facts rather than a pile of political rhetoric. As somebody in the class suggested, this professor should testify in Congress.

My afternoon classes were less eventful. A session on the new Indiana Festival Theatre was just a guided tour of the organization's brochure, and we never really got to the meat of the presentation in "Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans' Definitions of Family."

Coming up later this week are two Shakespeare classes, a lecture by professor David Baker on great jazz singers, and a session about WikiLeaks and its implications for the journalism profession. And, of course, some FarmBloomington fries, Mad Mushroom cheese sticks, and something yummy from Trojan Horse.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Classes at Traders Point Creamery

This evening, my sister and I will be exploring the Traders Point Creamery farmers market and settling in at the Loft restaurant for dinner. I have a soft spot for TPC, with its fromage blanc, raspberry yogurt and cottage cheese (which is so addictive we call it "crack cottage cheese" at my house).

So, I'm delighted to see that TPC is now offering classes on organic cooking and gardening. Here's a rundown of the upcoming schedule:
  • How to Eat Organic on a Budget (6-8 p.m., Monday, June 20).
  • Perfect Picnic (6-8 p.m., Monday, July 11), including recipes for cooler-pressed chicken sandwiches, picnic in a jar chickpea salad, Greek yogurt dill dip and no-bake chewy granola bars.
  • Pizza from Field to Table (6-8 p.m., Monday, Aug. 1), including recipes for grilled garden pizza, colorful salad, homemade ranch dressing and fresh mint lemonade
Classes are $25 each or $60 for all three. For more information, contact