Stay Connected.

I feel like I was tricked into getting on Facebook, or maybe just pressured. One day I got an email that said a co-worker had signed up for Facebook and thought I’d be interested in it too. And I ignored it. Then about twenty more emails came in, all of them from people I work with, and I heard someone say we were going to start using Facebook as a way to share work-related information. I thought, well, if it’s work-related I’d better sign up for it. And I’ve never regretted it. While it’s never really been used for anything related to work, it has given me a chance to learn things about some people I’ve worked with for over a decade without really knowing anything about them personally. This is actually useful because, in a few months, about twenty people who are currently in another building are going to be moving into the office where I work. Technically we’re all in the same department but for as long as I’ve worked here we’ve been split into two buildings, so for the first time in almost twenty years we’ll be sharing the same space. Facebook has given me a chance to learn a little about some of them as people, and even to chat casually–albeit virtually.

And on the personal front it’s given me a chance to reconnect with people I’d lost touch with but never forgotten–old friends I thought I’d never hear from again. In spite of being a writerly kind of guy I’m a terrible correspondent, but Facebook does allow me to stay in touch with, or at least keep up with, old friends. Sometimes too I’m surprised by who’s looking. My life ain’t that exciting, but I get a kick out of putting song lyrics in the What’s on your mind? section. Usually they’re whatever I’ve been listening to on the way to work–anything from The Kinks to They Might Be Giants. Except I don’t say, “Here’s a song lyric.” I’ll just stick something in there as though it’s my own profound thought. Once I put up a couple of lines from Justin Bond’s In The End and got one phone call and a flurry of emails from people concerned about my well-being. I pick my lyrics a little more carefully now.

It’s not surprising that there’s now at least one academic study of social networking sites, and Laura Vanderkam’s review of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives is an interesting look at this new book by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler. According to the book, Vanderkam says, networks transmit “information, germs, and habits between people who are nearly as tangentially linked as actors in the old parlor game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” The people we associate with can affect everything from our happiness to our weight. Our behaviors radiate outward.

Being connected to a happy person, for instance, makes you 15 percent more likely to be happy yourself…It radiates out for three degrees of separation, so that, say, your sister’s best friend’s husband’s mood exerts a greater influence on your personal happiness than an extra $10,000 in income would. If he gains 50 pounds, it will be that much harder for you to stay slim, as the frame of reference for what’s “normal” changes through your network. Or, on the positive side, if he quits smoking, your chances of kicking the habit improve, too, even if you’ve never met him.

I’ve emphasized that last part because it’s a profound thought: people we’ve never met, people we may never have spoken to, maybe even people whose names we don’t even know have an impact on our lives in ways we don’t recognize. And yet, as Vanderkam notes, this is not a “how to be happy” manual. They’re not advocating behavioral changes or expanding one’s sphere of friends, since being well-connected “is better if you want to find a job, but being on the outside is more advantageous in the midst of a swine flu epidemic.” She also faults the authors because they “raise, but then mostly avoid answering, some profound questions”. A book like this, of course, is about studying the data, not grappling with the philosophical issues, each of which could fill several books.

Reading this review made me think even more deeply about the impact a few simple song lyrics or even a joke can have on the people around me. One of the implications of Connected is that we may not be as in control of our behavior as we think–which makes it harder to control our behavior. I hope that knowing this, though, will make me more conscious of my behavior and be a positive influence.


Word Of The Week: November 28th, 2009.

With Thanksgiving over, students now have only a few short weeks of classes left and final exams for the semester to look forward to. When I was in college one of the professors taught a course in existentialism. The final exam consisted of one word: Why? The only person in the class to get a perfect score turned in an answer that consisted of just two words: Why not?

The word why is one of the shortest, commonest, and yet most loaded words in English–and probably in any other language as well. Asking “Why?” seems to sum up everything about us, especially if you agree with Heidegger who said human nature is in the form of a question. Curiosity isn’t limited to humans–or even to primates–and the capacity for such abstract thought may not be either, but being able to ask “Why?” implies both awareness of and dissatisfaction with the surrounding environment. And being dissatisfied is the inspiration for changing the surrounding environment.

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s etymology for why traces it all the way back to Indo-European, and, while we’ll never know, it wouldn’t surprise me if why–or some other word with the same meaning–were one of the oldest words in spoken language. The OED also has the interesting word whydunit, which is one of those words that doesn’t get nearly enough use. The definition of whydunit is, as you can probably guess, “A story, play, or film in which the main interest lies in the detection of the motive for some crime or other action.”

So it’s different from a whodunit in that–I assume–the criminal may already be known, the question is really why the crime was committed. Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne is a good example of a whydunit. I know not every crime can be prevented, but it seems to me that understanding why most crimes are committed is at least as important as who committed them. Understanding the motive can, in some cases, allow for preventive steps to be taken before the same crime is committed again.


Citizens Of The World.

I am neither an Athenian nor a Greek, but a citizen of the world.
-Socrates

The question of who owns a work of art can get pretty complicated. In A Case in Antiquities for ‘Finders Keepers’, John Tierney reports that Zahi Hawass, the secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, considers the Rosetta Stone, as well as other Egyptian antiquities, to be stolen property. And he’s gotten some museums–including the Louvre–to hand over some pieces.

The Rosetta Stone–discovered by French soldiers in 1799 and acquired by the British after the defeat of Napoleon–is also not the only disputed piece of art in the British Museum. There are also the famous Elgin Marbles, removed from the Parthenon and other Greek sites in the early 19th Century. I’m sure there are others that I don’t know about, but the whole thing just raises really big questions that I have a hard time wrapping my head around. Who owns certain works of art–particularly ancient works that predate the existence of any modern country?

I think the argument that’s made for keeping certain works in their place of origin is so they can be understood in context. Where a work of art was created helps us understand why it was created, and how the people who created it and for whom it was created viewed it. And there’s also the financial benefit. Another controversial piece, a bust of Nefertiti, is in the Neues Museum in Berlin, but Dr. Hawass is also demanding that it be returned to Egypt. Would people still flock to the Neues Museum if it were to lose its prize exhibit? Although I don’t know if he’s said so, Dr. Hawass’s argument is probably more about economics than it is about national pride. Not that there’s anything wrong with a museum benefiting financially, but is it right that a country should claim ownership of a work because it was produced there?

Even though it meant taking them out of their original cultural context, taking works of art from one part of the world to another meant people could see and enjoy them. They became shared property in a very broad sense, especially when they were made accessible to the public. Works from the bust of Nefertiti to the Rosetta Stone to the travelling Tutankhamen exhibit have inspired archaeologists but, more importantly, they’ve inspired cross-cultural understanding. National identity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s easily misused. Tierney mentions that numerous politicians have used antiquities to bolster their own power, including Saddam Hussein, who turned “Iraqi archeology museums into propaganda for himself as the modern Nebuchadnezzar.” It was both a gross distortion of history and an attempt to own a cultural heritage so ancient it really belongs to all of us. The bust of Nefertiti and similar antiquities have become, in a real sense, citizens of the world. Dr. James Cuno, in his book Who Owns Antiquity?, says,

It is in the nature of our species to connect and exchange…And the result is a common culture in which we all have a stake. It is not, and can never be, the property of one modern nation or another.

Works of art, particularly the oldest works of art, speak to a shared cultural heritage, and I’d like there to be a happy medium, a sharing. Tierney says that,

Dr. Cuno advocates the revival of partage, the traditional system in which archeologists digging in foreign countries would give some of their discoveries to the host country and take others home. That way both sides benefit, and both sides have incentives to recover antiquities before looters beat them to it.

It’s a good idea, although deciding what stays and what gets taken home is going to be tricky. And if some politician in the country of origin decides to stake a claim to antiquities that an archaeologist was allowed to take to another country, what then? I don’t know. There are a million arguments and counter-arguments, but I keep coming back to the idea of sharing. The whole idea of sharing requires giving up something but also getting something. Sharing also requires trust, and even though that’s always in short supply I can’t think of a better way to create trust than by the cultural exchanges that show how much we have in common.

Another important thing to consider–perhaps the most important thing–is that the life of even the most well-made antiquities is finite. The surviving monuments of the ancient world have an austere beauty, but many of them were originally as bright and gaudy as the Vegas strip. Marble wears down, paint disintegrates, clay crumbles. Preservation is a worthy occupation, but only so much restoration is possible. We have to enjoy great works of art while we can, and there’s no better way to honor the people who made them than by sharing them with as many people as possible.


Word Of The Week: November 21st, 2009

When I was younger I wore vests all the time. You could say I had a vested interest in them, but that’s the kind of pun that makes people laugh politely then stab you. What we in North America typically call a vest, though, is, in Britain, more commonly known as a waistcoat, even though any self-respecting coat should have sleeves, and vests also cover the upper torso. Not that calling a vest a vest makes much more sense. The word vest comes from the Latin vestis, which means “covering or garment , clothing; a blanket, carpet, tapestry”. That’s a lot of meanings to cram into a single word. It doesn’t surprise me that Rome fell if they weren’t able to tell clothes from tapestries–but that’s another story.

Supposedly vest as a verb, which becomes the suffix for words like divest and invest, comes from the Latin vestio, vestire, which means “to dress” or “to clothe”. I’m not so sure about that. There’s also the Latin word vester, which means “your” or “yours”. I wonder if the word vestis came from vester, or vice versa, because there’s clothing is so personal. And then there’s also the goddess Vesta, goddess of the home–also something extremely personal.

Getting back to waistcoats, though, the first use of the word vest in the American sense comes from Britain–at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which has this definition of vest:

A sleeveless garment of some length worn by men beneath the coat…A short garment worn beneath the coat or jacket as a usual part of male attire; a waistcoat.

And the first recorded use in print is from Samuel Pepys’s diary, in which he says,

The King hath yesterday, in Council, declared his resolution of setting a fashion for clothes… It will be a vest, I know not well how; but it is to teach the nobility thrift.

While I was never a trend setter like King Charles II, I did buy most of the vests I wore in thrift stores.

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The League Of Extraordinary Librarians.

Because public libraries cater to both adults and children they have to walk a fine line between access and censorship, purchasing certain materials that aren’t appropriate for all ages but also restricting access to them. And if there’s a question about whether something should be available to any patrons regardless of age or whether it should only be available to adults or with a guardian’s permission then libraries usually have ways of dealing with that, but it usually requires consulting staff and coming to a group decision.

Two Lexington, Kentucky public library workers, though, decided to sidestep all that and took it upon themselves to remove The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier from the shelves. And they didn’t just remove it. The Beat explains how they

colluded to keep the book out of circulation — Cook, who had become disturbed by the book’s imagery, checked it out for a year, meaning no one else could check it out. However, when an 11-year-old girl put it on hold, Cook was unable to continue her delaying tactic — and Boisvert stepped in, removing the hold, and keeping the book out of circulation.

I have to admit checking a book out for any length of time is a clever way of keeping it out of someone else’s hands. That’s one of the disadvantages of print books. From the article, though, it sounds like Cook has succeeded in keeping the book out of the hands of any other patrons. She has not returned it and is “still carrying it around in her knapsack, the dirty parts marked with post-its.”

Both library workers have been fired, by the way. And click here if you want to see one of the pictures that was so disturbing.


Survival of The Facts.

Yesterday as I was about to cross the street a guy with a big cardboard box asked me, “Would you like a free book?” I hesitated because I wasn’t sure what it would be, then said, “Sure.” And he handed me a copy of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. I looked at it and said, “Hey, thanks!” This being Tennessee–home of the Scopes Trial–it’s nice to see Darwin’s book being handed out. And close to a college campus too.

Then I looked more closely and realized the edition is edited by Ray Comfort. Comfort has published this book to be distributed free around the United States, and claims “Nothing has been removed from Darwin’s original work.” Nothing, that is, except for Darwin’s introduction and at least four chapters.

In reviewing the book, Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, says, “there’s no reason for students to refuse Comfort’s free—albeit suspiciously abridged—copy of the Origin.” She adds, though, that the introduction is,

a hopeless mess of long-ago-refuted creationist arguments, teeming with misinformation about the science of evolution, populated by legions of strawmen, and exhibiting what can be charitably described as muddled thinking.

Of course Comfort and his ilk seem content to use misinformation and even outright dishonesty to promote their opposition to science, and they’re certainly free to do so. In the world of ideas, unfortunately, natural selection doesn’t always work. While facts can’t be driven to extinction, it seems that neither can some lies, because people like Comfort keep resurrecting them no matter how many times they’re knocked down. And yet I think there might be value in this book. Comfort’s work does stand as a reminder of the kind of dishonesty and anti-intellectualism that constantly tries to pollute our thinking.


Fantastic Mr. Dahl.

It’s surprising that it’s taken Hollywood this long to adapt Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox into a movie, although Hollywood seems to have waited for Dahl’s death in 1990 to turn several of his books–Matilda, James And The Giant Peach, The Witches–into movies, and that’s not including the even more recent remake of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is also unusual among Dahl’s works in that its principal characters are talking animals. Technically there are talking animals in James And The Giant Peach too, but there’s a supernatural explanation for that. The animals in Mr. Fox are even more anthropomorphic, having language and their own society which mirrors the human society above them–although without nearly so much meanness. Its hero–Mr. Fox–is also an adult, another unusual quality in a Dahl book. And yet when I went back and reread it I realized how, talking animals aside, it’s not that different thematically from most of his other books. The most interesting thing is how often his characters are outsiders–usually excluded from the privileges of the upper classes. While he’s never openly critical of the class system, Dahl does seem to enjoy poking fun at the upper class. Charlie’s family is almost at the lowest possible end of the economic scale, as are James’s aunts–but they take their frustrations out on James. While Matilda’s father is a successful car salesman, he’s stupid and conniving and ultimately undone by his own greed. Matilda also faces Miss Trunchbull, who’s definitely upper class. All of the children in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory–with the exception of Charlie–come from wealthy families. And then there’s Danny Champion Of The World, in which Danny and his father live in a gypsy van and are threatened by the wealthy Mr. Hazell. Like Dahl’s other heroes Mr. Fox is kept out of “society”, here represented by the three evil farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. Mr. Fox has to get by on his wits, and the harder Boggis, Bunce, and Bean push the easier it becomes for Mr. Fox to slip in and take advantage of them. Not that it’s always that hard. None of the farmers are smart, and Dahl has this typically gross explanation for why Bean is deaf:

Bean never took a bath. He never even washed. As a result his earholes were clogged with all kinds of muck and wax and bits of chewing-gum and dead flies and stuff like that.

I’ve wondered whether Dahl’s tendency to prod the upper classes has anything to do with his upbringing. He was born to Norwegian parents who emigrated to Britain, and most summers they returned to Norway. While he doesn’t say he felt like an outsider as a child, or even as an adult, his autobiography is called Going Solo. Both his father and older sister died when he was just four, which must have come as an enormous shock and no matter how much his mother and other adults tried to compensate, it must have left him feeling very alone and uncertain.

It may actually be more complicated than needling the upper classes. Dahl has a distinct dislike of bullies. In both his book Boy and his story Lucky Break he describes the awful system in English boarding schools where he and other boys would be servants to the older boys, and how he’d get beaten with a cane for burning an older boy’s toast. Interestingly he doesn’t say whether he was just as brutal when he became an older student.

What Dahl’s books provide young readers, though, is moral ambiguity. Ideally children’s books are supposed to teach kids right from wrong–or so we’d like to believe. Dahl, though, isn’t always interested in punishing the bad and rewarding the good because most of his characters aren’t all good or all bad. His description of wealthy men in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar seems to capture his view of the world. Henry Sugar is wealthy enough that he doesn’t have to work, and Dahl says,

Men like Henry Sugar are to be found drifting like seaweed all over the world…They are not particularly bad men. But they are not good men either. They are of no real importance. They are simply a part of the decoration.

Henry Sugar eventually redeems himself, creating a whole series of well-funded orphanages, but he does it by robbing casinos.

Matilda has a devious side, playing some brilliant pranks on her parents, including gluing her father’s hat to his head. James and his friends rejoice when his two aunts are crushed by the giant peach. And then there’s Danny, whose father is a petty thief. The fact that the whole village, with the exception of Mr. Hazell, participates in the crime doesn’t make it any better. Even Charlie Bucket–sweet, innocent, downtrodden Charlie Bucket–only succeeds because he does something he shouldn’t. When he finds some money he should take it straight home but he instead gambles part of it, a purely selfish act.

And then there’s Mr. Fox. Like Danny’s father he starts out a petty thief, but, thanks to the efforts by “Messrs. Boggis, Bunce, and Bean” to destroy him he becomes even more successful than any of them could imagine.

Without realizing it, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean become Mr. Fox’s servants. By trying to kill him they end up giving him access to everything they own, and he never has to work again. Is this right or wrong? Dahl never treats the world so simplistically, and I think that’s why his books continue to be so successful. Young readers understand that the world’s not a simple place.

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Book ‘Em: Into The Wilderness.

The thinness of what we call “civilization” is a recurring theme of Margaret Atwood’s work, and Wilderness Tips is a collection of short stories exploring this theme from several different perspectives.  A woman mails her removed tumor to her ex-lover’s wife, going against what would be the civilized thing to do, while in another story a young camper disappears on a canoeing trip, forcing the camp’s administrators to place blame as a way of maintaining order. Perhaps the most thought-provoking story, though, is the one placed literally at the book’s center, Uncles. Superficially this seems to be a story about how women’s liberation has threatened the old order established by men–and feminism is also a recurring theme of Atwood’s work. In fact Atwood is up to something more complicated in the story of Susanna, whose father died in World War II so that she never knew him. Instead she’s raised by her single mother and fostered by three uncles–over the objections of her aunts. Then, taking a career in journalism, she’s mentored by an older man named Percy. But then she passes him, getting first a radio show then a television show. Stuck at the same small local paper, Percy gets a small amount of national notoriety–and revenge–by writing an article attacking her as the “dragon lady”. She survives the attack, but her mentor’s resentment stings and takes her back to her feelings about her father. She has to deal with her own Oedipal conflict, confronting the fact that, while the younger generation must eventually supplant the older, the older generation will hate the younger generation for it. In fact the real problem is that Percy has never grown up, but Susanna doesn’t see it this way. She takes Percy’s betrayal personally, and dreams of her father “staring at her with hate.”

Stylistically Atwood’s stories are simple and straightforward, but philosophically they’re anything but simple. She often compresses whole lives, or several decades of a life into a few pages, allowing her to focus on the circumstances that led her characters to where they are. It’s very revealing of something at work in the lives of most of us. We may wonder how we ended up where we are, but it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees.


Word Of The Week: November 14th, 2009.

Recently I was between two groups of co-workers who were discussing a major procedural shift. While no one in the department had the deciding vote (it had to go to people much higher up) there was a group of us who honestly felt both sides had good, reasonable positions. We thought that, whichever way the final decision went, it would be fine. I was in that group in the middle. I wasn’t waffling, I wasn’t trying to appease anyone. Unfortunately, this was a decision in which there was no compromise that would–like most compromises–make both sides equally unhappy, but it seemed to me and to some others that both sides had equal merit.

There’s actually a word for this. It’s called utrality. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as, “Tendency to favour both sides; inclination towards either party.” This is not, strictly speaking neutrality. A minister named William Price coined the word in a sermon in 1642, distinguishing it from neutrality, even though utrality was, sort of, derived from that word. Utrality and neutrality both come from Latin. Utrality specifically derives from the word uter, which means “which of the two?”

The reason I’m so keen to specify a difference between utrality and neutrality is neutrality–to me, at least, implies not caring one way or the other. Utrality is something that I think all of us might feel at times–caring about two different sides of an issue and wanting to be part of both. Lacking a word for it can make the feeling difficult to describe. Price’s coining, interestingly, is the only recorded usage the OED has. On the one hand I’m not surprised–it’s a pretty obscure term. On the other hand, though, I’m surprised, because the word can be so useful.


The Problem’s Been Licked.

One of the last items of Halloween candy to go (before you get to those horrible peanut-butter things in the orange and black wrappers) is the Tootsie Roll Pop. So I’m taking that as an excuse to share this old commercial for Tootsie Roll Pops which I’m sure brings back memories for many of us. And here’s a true story: a friend of mine made a serious effort to find out how many licks it really does take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop. His count was four-hundred and thirty-seven.

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