Wednesday, March 31, 2010

We have to understand the context

From E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy.
The recently rediscovered insight that literacy is more than a skill is based upon knowledge that all of us unconsciously have about language. We know instinctively that to understand what somebody is saying, we must understand more than the surface meanings of words; we have to understand the context as well. The need for background information applies all the more to reading and writing. To grasp the words on a page we have to know a lot of information that isn't set down on the page

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The chief function of literacy is to make us masters of this standard instrument of knowledge

From E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy.
The chief function of literacy is to make us masters of this standard instrument of knowledge and communication, thereby enabling us to give and receive complex information orally and in writing over time and space. Advancing technology, with its constant need for fast and complex communications, has made literacy ever more essential to commerce and domestic life.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Where communications fail, so do the undertakings

From E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy.
Why is literacy so important in the modern world? Some of the reasons, like the need to fill out forms or get a good job, are so obvious that they needn't be discussed. But the chief reason is broader. The complex undertakings of modern life depend on cooperation of many people with different specialties in different places. Where communications fail, so do the undertakings. (That is the moral of the story of the Tower of Babel.) The function of national literacy is to foster effective nationwide communications. Our chief instrument of communication over time and space is the standard national language, which is sustained by national literacy. Mature literacy alone enables the tower to be built, the business to be well managed, and the airplane to fly without crashing. All nationwide communications, whether by telephone, radio, TV, or writing are fundamentally dependent upon literacy, for the essence of literacy is not simply reading and writing but also the effective use of the standard literate language.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A kind of easy-going panache

From Priscilla Napier's A Late Beginner, available directly from Slightly Foxed. "Priscilla Napier grew up in Egypt during the last golden years of the Edwardian Age - a time when, for her parents' generation, it seemed the sun would never set upon 'the regimental band playing selections from HMS Pinafore under the banyan tree.'"

Recounting her visits home to England in the early teens of the last century, when she would have been three to six years of age, she offers this recollection of those magnificent servants of the crown; a more positive (and probably more deserved) judgment than has been the fashion of late to offer.
Not all Edwardian men can have had such very long legs: possibly it was one's viewpoint that gave one this impression. Their far up faces, above unaccountably deep collars, seemed always to be breaking into laughter. Their salient characteristic was their relaxedness, a kind of easy-going panache glossing theirs words and actions. Their legs in narrow trousers carrying them inexhaustibly up hill, or thrown, in gleaming leggings, over a horse's back, moved with an unhurried and purposeful elan. Their voices, heard in mockery, affection, or sternness, rang always with that confident buoyancy that was to sink for ever in the mud of the Great War battlefields, with that unquestioning sense of the rightness and fitness of the Pax Britannica and of their place within it. They basked in what they imagined to be its high noon, in what were in fact its last rays, in the sun never setting upon the regimental band playing selections from H.M.S. Pinafore under the banyan tree. Consciously Christians, of a sort, they fought the good fight against an excess in drinking, smoking, or spending; against paying insufficient regard to mothers-in-law or dull old relations. They believed in practically everything except Father Christmas and votes for women, and it made for great peace of mind. Straddling the world, with their graceful wives and their strangely over-dressed babies, they believed in marital fidelity and in kindness to animals which included their rapid despatch when they were being shot, hunted, or fished for. They believed in right and wrong, with a strong line drawn between. They were listening without self-consciousness to the last faint echoes of Roland's horn. They said family prayers, and made endless practical jokes, and tipped one golden half sovereigns. To later critics they could be said to have lived in an innocent, callous, enjoying dream, in some ways perhaps never quite growing up. But they were true to their ethic, and remained, even to people who were not their relations, curiously lovable. Their self-mastery, and not only or mainly in sexual matters, was truly adult; and when the appalling calamity of World War I avalanched over them, they confronted it without self-pity. From their loss we all still suffer. In their rare and more perspicacious survivor, Churchill, we all rejoice. There was something marvellously entire about them.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Define: Plug-ugly

Wodehouse is a great logo coach (word coach?). I never realized quite how much he probably contributed to the development of my youthful vocabulary until I recently reread Jeeves in the Morning (Audio) and was struck by how many allusions he made to things that ought to be known but that I probably did not really know enough about or used words that I have always just interpreted from the context of his use.

Plug-ugly for instance. I have managed to work it, improbably, into a conversation or two over the years but actually never had a precise definition beyond my inference from Wodehouse.
I had also had to be similarly firm with Jeeves, who had repeatedly hinted his wish that I should take a cottage there for the summer months. There was, it appeared, admirable fishing in the river, and he is a man who dearly loves to flick the baited hook. "No, Jeeves," I had been compelled to say, "much though it pains me to put a stopper on your simple pleasures, I cannot take a risk of running into that gang of pluguglies. Safety first." And he had replied, "Very good, sir," and there the matter had rested.

From Merriam-Webster.

Main Entry: plug-ug ly
Function: noun
Date: 1856

Friday, March 26, 2010

Amid the bustle of waiters, the chink of fine silver and the hum of dozens of conversations,

For any independent reader who is a Sherlock Holmes enthusiast (as I was at that age), there was an article in the January 2010 Smithsonian, Sherlock Holmes' London, which might be of interest.
One summer evening in 1889, a young medical school graduate named Arthur Conan Doyle arrived by train at London's Victoria Station and took a hansom cab two and a half miles north to the famed Langham Hotel on Upper Regent Street. Then living in obscurity in the coastal town of Southsea, near Portsmouth, the 30-year-old ophthalmologist was looking to advance his writing career. The magazine Beeton's Christmas Annual had recently published his novel, A Study in Scarlet, which introduced the private detective Sherlock Holmes. Now Joseph Marshall Stoddart, managing editor of Lippincott's Monthly, a Philadelphia magazine, was in London to establish a British edition of his publication. At the suggestion of a friend, he had invited Conan Doyle to join him for dinner in the Langham's opulent dining room.

Amid the bustle of waiters, the chink of fine silver and the hum of dozens of conversations, Conan Doyle found Stoddart to be "an excellent fellow," he would write years later. But he was captivated by one of the other invited guests, an Irish playwright and author named Oscar Wilde. "His conversation left an indelible impression upon my mind," Conan Doyle remembered. "He had a curious precision of statement, a delicate flavour of humour, and a trick of small gestures to illustrate his meaning." For both writers, the evening would prove a turning point. Wilde left with a commission to write his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which appeared in Lippincott's June 1890 issue. And Conan Doyle agreed to produce a second novel starring his ace detective; The Sign of Four would cement his reputation. Indeed, critics have speculated that the encounter with Wilde, an exponent of a literary movement known as the Decadents, led Conan Doyle to deepen and darken Sherlock Holmes' character: in The Sign of Four's opening scene, Holmes is revealed to be addicted to a "seven-percent solution" of cocaine.

Children's literature, bad books and ideas

In an article (Children's Literature by Feroza Jussawalla in College Literature, October 1997) otherwise marked by academic gibberish and predetermined strawmen imposed willy-nilly upon reality, Feroza Jussawalla quotes this line from Peter Hunt from his book An Introduction to Children's Literature, my emphasis added:
Children's literature is a powerful literature, and . . . such power cannot be neutral or innocent, or trivial. This is especially true because the books are written by and made available to children, by adults .. Equally obviously, the primary audience is children, who are less experienced and less educated into their culture than adults.

I think this is in part the answer to an enduring conundrum presented to book enthusiasts when assaulted with the charge that books are dangerous because of the ideas or prejudices or values that they transmit. (And to be clear, this is an equal opportunity charge coming as it does from either left or right.) The conundrum is that as soon as one advances the belief, indeed the conviction, of the importance of books to children - as most bibliophiles do - then one must accept that books can have negative consequences as well as positive consequences.

I believe the charge to be true, books are a potentially powerful influence either for good or bad, but that the bibliophiles answer lies in Hunt's statement "books are written by and made available to children, by adults." Bad values, or stereotypes, or prejudice, or facts received via books are not inherently corruptive - it is the context in which they are received, and vis-a-vis children, the mediation of parents and adults that determines whether the ideas, values, etc. are affirmative or corruptive in nature.

It is important for a child to have their parents shaping the portfolio of books to which they are exposed (and in what sequence) and it is important for there to be reasonable variety which would include variety not only in subject, style, genre, etc. but also in terms of issues, values, and ideas. The impact of those ideas are substantially filtered through the prior influence of the parent in shaping the child's weltanschauung as well as the discussion the parent might have about those ideas as the child reads. It is not the book in itself that might be the problem but rather the environment and context in which it is read.

Poetry, Imagination, and Education

Poetry, Imagination, and Education an essay by Amy Lowell. Originally published in Poetry and Poets: Essays (1930). While the essay is cast in the form of the age-old debate of whether education is meant to teach children to think or to know (process of learning versus acquiring facts) - a ridiculous debate when it is clear that both are needed - Lowell's discussion is actually much richer than the constraints imposed by that model and with many well-turned observations. She is actually focusing on the importance of the cultivation of imagination in conjunction with a comprehension of facts. Well worth reading the essay in its entirety. Among the morsels:
These deal with the facts of life, and facts are most important things, but fancies are important too, and the fancies are not much cultivated today.

It is doubtful if fancy can be cultivated directly, it is too subtle and elusive, it must grow of itself, but conditions can be made conducive or the reverse. To be conducted through the realms of poetry and romance by a grown-up person, as one of a class of children all with differing needs and perceptions, at a given rate of speed, is not conducive to such growth.

To gain the greatest amount out of a book, one must read it as inclination leads; some parts are to be hurried over quickly, others read slowly and many times over; the mind will take what it needs, and dwell upon it, and make it its own.

Its connotations are really what make a book of use in stimulating the imagination. As a musical note is richer the more overtones it has, so a book is richer the more it ramifies into trains of thought. But there must be time and space for the thought to develop; the reader must not be interrupted by impertinent comments and alien suggestions.

At first the child merely knows that this story or that story is interesting, that certain other stories are not interesting, he does not attempt to analyse why. Later he will make his first true criticism; he will say, 'It does not seem real,' or 'Nobody would do so.' He has detected bad writing; his imagination refuses to give credence to what its instinct declares not to be true. Gradually these criticisms of matter are added to by criticisms of form, and we have 'Nobody would talk like that.'

What makes the child think that nobody would do thus and so, or that nobody would talk in such and such a way? Partly his knowledge of life as he has lived it, of course. Though he has lived a very small life and his experiences have necessarily been few, yet through the life of his imagination he has been able to live much more, he has gained a conception of life far beyond anything that he has ever experienced.

If one can imagine oneself a child of twelve years old denuded of any knowledge or idea of anything except what he can have known or seen in his daily life, one will at once see how much more meagre his conceptions would be than is actually the case. Therefore what makes the child think that this or that thing that he is reading about is false is the knowledge that he has gained through his imagination.

The power of judgment is like water running up hill; water cannot rise higher than its own level, and judgment cannot go beyond the experience which informs it. To be sure that the judgment is sound, the school in which the experience is gained must be true to life. Only the best in literature and art is this, and it is with the best in literature and art that our children must be familiar.
There is no education like self-education, and no stimulus to the imagination so good as that which it gives itself when allowed to roam through the pent-up stores of the world's imaginings at will.

There is a class of people known to all librarians as 'browsers.' They wander from shelf to shelf, now reading here, now there. Sometimes dipping into ten books in the hour, sometimes absorbed in one for the whole day. If we look back to our childhood we shall see how large a part 'browsing' had in our education. One book suggested another, and as we finished one we knew the next that was waiting to be begun. They stretched on and on in a delightful and never-ending vista. The joy of those hours when we sat cross-legged' on the floor, or perched on the top of a ladder, a new world hidden behind the covers of every book within reach, and perfect liberty to open the covers and enter at will, can never be forgotten.
We talk about 'creating a demand for books' among the children of the masses, and about ' giving them the reading habit,' and the best way to do this is to have a well-stocked reading-room of good books, books for grown-up people as well as for children, and let the children have free access to the shelves. They will be found reading strange things often, strange from the point of view of the grown-up person, that is. But in most cases their instincts will be good guides, and they will read what is best for them.

We love and admire certain things rather inspite of what people say than because of it. We like to compare notes with some one who enjoys the same things that we do, but the real enjoyment was there before. Beauty cannot be proved as a mathematical problem can. If beauty is its own excuse for being, it is also its own teacher for perceiving. Contact with beautiful things creates a taste for the beautiful, if there is any taste to be created.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Define: adventitious

From the January 23rd, 2010 edition of The Spectator, in an article by Jacob Heilbrunn, Meet the Fantastic Mr. Fox.
The martial imagery is not adventitious.


Main Entry: ad ven ti tious
Pronunciation: \ˌad-(ˌ)ven-ˈti-shəs, -ven-\
Function: adjective
Etymology: Latin adventicius
Date: 1603
1 : coming from another source and not inherent or innate {a Federal house without adventitious later additions}
2 : arising or occurring sporadically or in other than the usual location

- ad ven ti tious ly adverb

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Rice and Japanese culture

From the December 19th, 2009 edition of The Economist, a very interesting article,You Are What You Eat, on changes in Japan related to the culture of farming and food. I blogged on food changes in Germany (under A vegetarian butcher, eh? Well it's an interesting business model for a challenging time). In the Japanese article, they mention a proverb tightly tied to the practice of rice agriculture as it relates to the cultivation of values, as so many adages and proverbs do.

A famous proverb written about rice serves as a metaphor for humility, a virtue the Japanese hold dear: "The heavier the head of rice, the deeper it bows."

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Thomas the Tank Engine - Crypto-fascist?

Rod Liddle is an always refreshingly provocative essayist for The Spectator. As a parent he has these observations to offer based on the reading/viewing habits of his children. Agree with him or not, he can as easily make you chuckle as set your teeth on edge. These extracts are from an article, Thomas the Tank Engine is merciless and bigoted - that's why kids love it in the January 2, 2010 edition.

I can't agree with him on everything. I always enjoyed both Awdry (the original stories not the adaptations and video versions) and Blyton as a child and so did my kids. Still he has a refreshing way of putting things and I suspect his central point is close to the mark - children love moral clarity.
In this, the Revd Awdry is a little like that other whacko and bitter purveyor of dross to the kiddies, Enid Blyton: despised by parents, loathed by academics, adored by children. From the same generation, both writers were ultra-conservative, patrician and had no truck with changing mores or indeed literary artifice. Blyton at least allowed girls to intrude into the action in the Famous Five, whether as the perpetually simpering Anne or the scary proto-diesel dyke George, but it was Julian - en-route to the Bullingdon Club and the Tory front bench - who ran the show.

Attacks upon Blyton are not new, of course - I remember them vaguely from when I actually read her stuff, back in the mid-1960s. But the usual thing to say about her writing then was that while she was an appalling stylist and clearly possessed of the most reprehensible political sensibilities, she could tell a good story and it was this that the kids enjoyed, in spite of her ideological shortcomings.

Much the same has been said recently about Thomas the Tank Engine - but if you think about it, this is very hard to argue. There aren't really any stories in Thomas the Tank Engine apart from various engines being humiliated and punished as a consequence of their misdemeanours or their hubris. And that's the conclusion you should reach, I reckon, in both cases: the kids like these stories not in spite of the narrow conservatism of the writers, but precisely because of it. Children feel most comfortable in an ordered and clearly demarcated world, a world divided into hierarchies. They have a Manichean view of good and evil and they like to see the baddies get punished, preferably in a thoroughly unpleasant manner. They may also identify with gender stereotypes which conform to the roles they have already been assigned or, more controversially, have worked out for themselves from a very early age. Children, and especially little boys, are conservative, when they are not actually fascists.

The other story line that our children loved, incidental as it might have been, was the fact that in so many of the tales, the passengers had to get out and: clear the rails, dig out the tunnel, push the train, etc. Travelling was clearly a team effort in those days. Be sure to enjoy the originals rather than the contemporary take-offs.

Boy Year

Boy Year by Donalyn Miller in Teacher Magazine, October 18, 2009.

I think Ms. Miller is very much on the mark here. We get so busy pigeon-holing individuals by race, gender, income, SES, etc. that we then do them a disservice by pandering down to the anonymous and indistinct averages rather than examining what we can do to meet their individual needs.
Considering the data (and we all know it is about the DATA these days), boys score lower than girls on standardized reading tests and report less motivation and interest in reading. I often wonder how much of the disengagement many boys have for reading stems from classroom instruction designed by predominately female English teachers, though. When every class novel and reading activity filters solely through the predilections and worldview of a female teacher, boys can become demotivated and believe that their personal interests and opinions are not valued in English class. It is clear that when selecting books to read aloud, purchasing books for a library, or designing lessons, we must be mindful of the boys we teach and our latent prejudices about the reading material we offer to students.

Boys want the same thing that every reader wants--to open a book and find themselves in the pages. As teachers, invested in creating readers, we owe it to our boys to help them find such books.

Reflecting on my own experiences, it probably helps that I appreciate the same books many boys do. I love fantasy epics and authors like Roland Smith and Eoin Colfer. I am just as likely to pull Scott Westerfeld's new steampunk science fiction novel, Leviathan, out of my bag and recommend it as I am to suggest a title like Helen Frost's The Braid, a book geared toward girls. I don't have strong gender preferences in what I read myself, so providing a balance in the books I recommend to students and choose for us to read together in class seems natural to me.

We create a crisis when we define readers along gender lines, and I think boy readers get a bad rap. They will read fiction, they will read books that explore emotional issues, and they will read books that are longer than 100 pages. They will read. Instead of blaming our boys for their gender, or lowering our expectations for their literacy development, we should scrutinize any system where boys are hailed for their achievement in science and math class and allowed to define themselves as nonreaders

Monday, March 22, 2010

The poor do not have power

I have been mulling lately, based on my academic background in developmental economics, the simple truth that all power originates solely from a society's productivity. Those societies that fail to produce or to maintain a relative standing in productivity ultimately fail. While pondering this and how it relates to the capacity to read (there is a link), I came across this passage in James C. Davis's The Human Story: Our History, From the Stone Age to Today:
According to a Sumerian maxim, "The poor do not have power."

Marginally less true now in a democracy than in Sumeria but still fundamentally true.

The fretful porpentine

From Jeeves in the Morning (Audio)by P.G. Wodehouse.

Dialogue between Jeeves and Bertie Wooster.

"It's no good saying 'Sir?' You know perfectly well what I mean. Entirely through your instrumentality, I shall shortly be telling Uncle Percy things about himself which will do something to his knotted and combined locks which at the moment has slipped my memory."

"Make his knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine, sir."


"Yes, sir."

"That can't be right. There isn't such a thing. However, let that pass. The point is that you have let me in for the ghastly task of ticking Uncle Percy off, and I want to know what you did it for. Was it kind, Jeeves? Was it feudal?"

The original quote is from Shakespeare's Hamlet.
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.

New hero

Oh, my! I have a new hero. I just came across Hans Rosling, a Swedish professor, who loves data and explores how we can gain more knowledge from the data that abounds. Here is a video of one of his presentations on the changes in the global economy in the past forty years. Hans Rosling's site is GapMinder. Excellent stuff.

I saw a dead swollen buffalo once, floating in the Nile

From Priscilla Napier's A Late Beginner, available directly from Slightly Foxed. "Priscilla Napier grew up in Egypt during the last golden years of the Edwardian Age - a time when, for her parents' generation, it seemed the sun would never set upon 'the regimental band playing selections from HMS Pinafore under the banyan tree.'"

Priscilla, as a child of single years, renders this wonderful jostling for position of prestige amongst her various cousins and extended family of colonial administrators, and the vying for post position of their respective countries of residence, Egypt and India.
Egypt was beautiful and wonderful, the most magical country in the world, if only it hadn't been for India. We spent every summer in England, in a world of cousins, but England was a transit camp, and Egypt was ours. All my Slessor cousins had been in India, at one time or another, because all their fathers were soldiers and it was where soldiers always went. Egypt was a trump card, incessantly over-trumped by India. India had more of everything, including that very prestigey thing - danger. It was larger, fiercer, and wilder; its people were more numerous and its diseases more lethal. India was a Raj and Egypt a Protectorate. India had the jungle; it had Mowgli, Shere Khan, and Bagheera, characters with whom poor Moses, wailing in his basket amongst the Nile rushes, could hardly be expected to compete.

'The Libyan desert', I informed my cousins, hopefully but inaccurately, 'is full of lions. How many lions has Uncle Will shot?'

'He shot a man-eating lion in the Sudan. He shot lots of crocodiles.'

It was no good. Their fathers had all shot tigers, panthers, wild buffaloes, elephants, and in extreme cases, Afghan tribesmen.

'I saw a dead swollen buffalo once, floating in the Nile.' But they had all, it appeared, seen dead swollen people floating in the Ganges.

'Where our friends the Dudgeons live, at Hanka, you can hear hyenas laughing in the night.'

'On our way up to Simla,' they countered, 'we camped in the jungle and you could hear the leopards roaring all night long. Quite close. And tiger.'

Their sophistication was electrifying. They even knew to say tiger and not tigers. Would one ever arrive at being so superbly scornful? Thus early do the Joneses raise their never to be drawn level with heads.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Life-Changing Books for Scientists

The April 19th, 2008 New Scientist had a collection of brief articles by scientists identifying those books which were, for them, life changing, many of which were books they read when they were young. Life-changing books: Recommendations from 17 leading scientists.

Farthest North - Steve Jones, geneticist
The Art of the Soluble - V. S. Ramachandran, neuroscientist
Animal Liberation - Jane Goodall, primatologist
The Foundation trilogy - Michio Kaku, theoretical physicist
Alice in Wonderland - Alison Gopnik, developmental psychologist
One, Two, Three... Infinity - Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist
The Idea of a Social Science - Harry Collins, sociologist of science
Handbook of Mathematical Functions - Peter Atkins, chemist
The Mind of a Mnemonist - Oliver Sacks, neurologist
A Mathematician's Apology - Marcus du Sautoy, mathematician
The Leopard - Susan Greenfield, neurophysiologist
Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior - Frans de Waal, psychologist and ethologist
Catch-22 / The First Three Minutes - Lawrence Krauss, physicist
William James, Writings 1878-1899 - Daniel Everett, linguist
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep - Chris Frith, neuroscientist
The Naked Ape - Elaine Morgan, author of The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis
King Solomon's Ring - Marian Stamp Dawkins, Zoologist

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Cool mackerel-haunted seas

From Priscilla Napier's A Late Beginner, available directly from Slightly Foxed. "Priscilla Napier grew up in Egypt during the last golden years of the Edwardian Age - a time when, for her parents' generation, it seemed the sun would never set upon 'the regimental band playing selections from HMS Pinafore under the banyan tree.'"

Here she describes a summer locale favored by her family in England in language that is similar in style to that later marvelous observer of nature, Gerald Durrell.
Salcombe and Peak, the twin enclosing cliffs of Sidmouth, were beautiful, dramatic and seemingly sky-high. To boat picnics at Ladrum Bay or Branscombe we were slowly and peacefully rowed by Bob and Tom Woolley through timeless afternoons under the sheer reflected red cliffs. Long ribbons of seaweed undulated below the cool mackerel-haunted seas, whose tidal flow seemed to me, then and since, far more delectable in its changing greys and greens and shadowy hyacinth colours, its alternating deeps and shallows, than the monotonous blue champagne of the Mediterranean. There were shrimps and prawns in plenty in the rocks below High Peak, endless clear tide-washed pools of limpets, anemones and grass-green weed.

Friday, March 19, 2010


Intriguing. Intelligence: Nature outpaces nurture as kids get older by Andy Coghlan in the July 18th, 2009 edition of New Scientist.
No one knows why the input from genes should increase with age, but Plomin suggests that as children get older, they become better at exploiting and manipulating their environment to suit their genetic needs. "Kids with high g will use their environment to foster their cognitive ability and choose friends who are like-minded," says Plomin. Children with medium to low g may choose less challenging pastimes and activities, further accentuating their genetic legacy.

Barbara Tuchman

Barbara Tuchman
Books are messengers of civilisation.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Geneaology of Jack and Jill

From Dot Woodsworth's Mind Your Language column in the September 26th, 2009 edition of The Spectator.
To me Jack is a pet-name for John - a hypocorism, as the grammarians rejoice to call babyish versions of names. You wouldn't baptise anyone Jack. There is no St Jack. (There is, I think, a St Ernest, from Zwiefalten in Germany.) The French name Jacques is their version of James. So, how did Jack become the English familiar byname for John?

The family is the major source of human inequality in American society

Here is a marvelous piece on topics closely related to reading from an unexpected source. Of course part of the reason I think it is marvelous is that it dovetails with our own TTMD research as well as the fact that it is from an economist strongly oriented towards using data and facts to tease out "truth" rather than using polemics, feelings, and anecdotal vignettes which seem to be the predominant modes of investigation in some quarters.

James Heckman is a Nobel prize-winning economist who works at the University of Chicago. In this article, Interview with James Heckman by Douglas Clement in the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis publication The Region (don't say I don't cast a broad net to find the facts behind reading), from June 2005.

The interview and topics are broad ranging including discrimination, education, and IQ among many others. What is refreshing is the constant effort to remain grounded in demonstrable facts, the recognition of the limits of data and the capacity to confront all possible interpretations of data. Among some of the observations that dovetail with our research that led to the Growing a Reading Culture report are the following.

Pertinent to the arguments for greater content in children's reading as well as to E.D. Hirsch's arguments regarding the importance of Cultural Literacy:

Region: What have you found in your own research about the effects of schooling on test scores?

Heckman: Very strong effects, much stronger than what Herrnstein and Murray claim in their book [The Bell Curve]. In a paper published last year with Kathleen Mullen and Karsten Hansen in the Journal of Econometrics, we found substantial effects of an extra year's schooling on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test, the same test they used. The point is that the test they used is an achievement test. It embodies knowledge that people acquire through experience.

Region: So it's not nature versus nurture, but rather nature with nurture.

Heckman: Exactly. It's an interaction. Epigenetics is the field that studies this. There are a lot of recent books and scholarly articles on this topic. I was just at the National Institutes of Health last weekend, and part of the discussion we had there was about this. It's a fascinating field.

The people who favor genetic explanations of social phenomena need to be careful about two things. The methods they use for determining heritability assume additivity. They don't allow for interaction. Secondly, when one does the standard additive analysis for different socioeconomic groups, one finds that the socioeconomic status critically affects the so-called heritability coefficient.

A paper published in Psychological Science (2003) by Eric Turkheimer [et al.] shows very strong family background effects on a number of heritability coefficients. Richer families are providing ways for children to override some defective genes and enhance those genes that are productive. We are just beginning to understand these mechanisms. They are very important.

Heckman: There's a very strong bias among economists against some of the basic findings of the child development literature. Many economists assume that family effects operate primarily through cognitive child ability. A lot of formal economic models view the development process solely in terms of raising IQs. Or else they assume that IQ is purely heritable. Neither view is correct.

Enriched early intervention programs targeted to disadvantaged children have had their biggest effect on noncognitive skills: motivation, self-control and time preference. We know that there's a scientific basis for this finding. The prefrontal cortex, which is a center of these noncognitive skills, matures late. The executive function, the very definition of ourselves as people, the way we motivate ourselves, these things are malleable until quite late stages - into the 20s, according to research by neuroscientists. This means that in principle we can modify these behaviors. Noncognitive skills are powerfully predictive of a number of socioeconomic measures (crime, teenage pregnancy, education and the like) as I show in a recent paper with Jora Stixrud and Sergio Urzua.

. . . The standard model developed by Gary Becker and Nigel Tomes implicitly assumes that early and late childhood investments are perfect substitutes, that one can make up later for what disadvantaged families neglect early. They also assume a single market skill.

For the study of early childhood investments, these are bad assumptions. First, skills are multiple in nature. A proper accounting of human skills recognizes both cognitive and noncognitive skills. Second, investments raise the stock of later skills through self-productivity and complementarity. Early advantages reinforce each other through self-productivity and complementarity, reducing the cost of future learning. Because of these life-cycle dynamics, the substitution between early and late investments in children is low. The most economically efficient way to remediate the disadvantage caused by adverse family environments is to invest in children when they are young.

We have found that for severely disadvantaged children, there are no levels of later childhood skill investments that can bring the children to a level of social and economic performance attainable from well-targeted early investments. We find that both social and emotional skills are essential in producing successful people. These findings change the way economists think about the human capital formation process.

If we don't provide disadvantaged young children with the proper environments to foster cognitive and noncognitive skills, we'll create a class of people without such skills, without motivation, without the ability to contribute to the larger society nearly as much as they could if they'd been properly nurtured from an early age. Neglecting the early years creates an underclass that is arguably growing in the United States. The family is the major source of human inequality in American society.

Most macroeconomists think of human capital as education, measured by years of school. Or if they're a little more sophisticated, they measure human capital by test scores like IQ or an achievement test. Neglected are all the noncognitive abilities that are produced by healthy families. Deficiencies in these skills can be partially remediated, as we know from the early intervention programs. Not completely remediated, but certainly gaps can be closed. The things we used to think of as soft and fuzzy have a real effect on behavior.

If a child starts out with low levels of cognitive and noncognitive ability, it becomes much less profitable to invest in the young adult. That's the notion of complementarity. If a child has a low level of ability at age 17, then productivity of investment in that person is much lower than it is in somebody who has ability and motivation. The major contributors to the college-going gap by child family income class have to do with child ability. Richer families are much more likely to send their kids to college, but once one conditions on the ability of the child at age 17, virtually all of the income effect goes away. It's all about the ability that's embodied in the child from a lifetime of early investments. So families play a huge role, but it's in making the kid college-ready. It's human ability, or rather, abilities. This is one place where Adam Smith was wrong, actually. He has a passage in The Wealth of Nations which I used to believe and used to quote in classes. And then I realized that Smith was dead wrong.

Region: As well as dead; he won't be able to respond to your critique.

Heckman: You're quite right. [Laughter] Dimitriy Masterov and I actually visited his tomb last year in Edinburgh, where we presented our work on Scottish skill formation.

But anyway, Smith says people are basically born the same and at age 8 one can't really see much difference among them. But then starting at age 8, 9, 10, they pursue different fields, they specialize and they diverge. In his mind, the butcher and the lawyer and the journalist and the professor and the mechanic, all are basically the same person at age 8.

This is wrong. IQ is basically formed by age 8, and there are huge differences in IQ among people. Smith was right that people specialize after 8, but they started specializing before 8. On the early formation of human skill, I think Smith was wrong, although he was right about many other things. And Dimitriy and I said that in the speeches we gave while in Scotland last year. We wanted to be a little titillating. But I think these observations on human skill formation are exactly why the job training programs aren't working in the United States and why many remediation programs directed toward disadvantaged young adults are so ineffective. And that's why the distinction between cognitive and noncognitive skill is so important, because a lot of the problem with children from disadvantaged homes is their values, attitudes and motivations.

Cognitive skills such as IQ can't really be changed much after ages 8 to 10. But with noncognitive skills there's much more malleability. That's the point I was making earlier when talking about the prefrontal cortex. It remains fluid and adaptable until the early 20s. That's why adolescent mentoring programs are as effective as they are. Take a 13-year-old. You're not going to raise the IQ of a 13-year-old, but you can talk the 13-year-old out of dropping out of school. Up to a point you can provide surrogate parenting.

So, coming back to job training and other interventions targeted toward disadvantaged adolescents, mainstream discussions miss the basic economics of the skill formation process. When we understand how that works, that skills build on each other, it's very common-sensical. It's not just IQ, or achievement measured by a test. That's very hard for many economists to understand. There are interactions among IQ, cognitive ability as measured by an achievement test and noncognitive ability.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Books that make you dumb

via the Wall Street Journal, (Books and Music That Make You Dumb), introducing Virgil Griffith and his site, He has mashed up data from Facebook (where people go to school and their stated favorite books) with the average SATs for each of those schools to come up with a "Smartest" books and "Dumbest" books. Fascinating. So many different ways to examine the world. Be sure to check his FAQ for some general observations and dicussion. While rigorous, it is not necessarily "accurate" but like all such lists interesting to see one's own choices confirmed and surprising to see what else shows up.

I have taken the liberty of marking the top 100 books based on whether they are either considered children's books or are commonly read by children. On that basis, the most popular twenty-five childrens/YA books of college graduates are:
Harry Potter
To Kill A Mockingbird
The Catcher In The Rye
The Great Gatsby
Pride And Prejudice
The Lord Of The Rings
The Giver
The Chronicles Of Narnia
Brave New World
Enders Game
Of Mice And Men
Jane Eyre
The Kite Runner
Animal Farm
Catch 22
Crime And Punishment
The Hobbit
The Count Of Monte Cristo
The Alchemist
Alice In Wonderland
A Clockwork Orange
C.S. Lewis
A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

In terms of the "smartest" children's books, they are:
100 Years Of Solitude
Crime And Punishment
Catch 22
Atlas Shrugged
The Alchemist
Enders Game
East Of Eden
Pride And Prejudice
Jane Eyre
The Great Gatsby
The Kite Runner
Anna Karenina
The Catcher In The Rye
The Lord Of The Rings
A Wrinkle In Time
Quiet On The Western Front
Alice In Wonderland
To Kill A Mockingbird
Brave New World
On The Road
Harry Potter

Define: glabrous

From the January 23rd, 2010 edition of The Spectator, in an article by Jacob Heilbrunn, Meet the Fantastic Mr. Fox.

To his admirers, and they are legion, the glabrous Ailes is something else entirely - a valiant freedom-fighter standing up to the perfidious liberal media elite.

Main Entry: gla·brous
Function: adjective
Etymology: Latin glabr-, glaber smooth, bald - more at glad
Date: 1640

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Bad art is always with us

via "Reading: An essay" by W.H. Auden
Bad art is always with us, but any given work of art is always bad in a period way; the particular kind of badness it exhibits will pass away to be succeeded by some other kind. It is unnecessary, therefore, to attack it, because it will perish anyway. . . . The only sensible procedure for a critic is to keep silent about works which he believes to be bad, while at the same time vigorously campaigning for those which he believes to be good, especially if they are being neglected or underestimated by the public.

Sounds about right

via "Reading: An essay" by W.H. Auden
What is the function of a critic? So far as I am concerned, he can do me one or more of the following services:
1) Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.
2) Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.
3) Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
4) Give a "reading" of a work which increases my understanding of it.
5) Throw light upon the process of artistic "Making."
6) Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.

The Leisure of an Egyptian Official

The Leisure of an Egyptian Official by Edward Cecil..

Monday, March 15, 2010

Progress versus Improvement

Jill Lepore has an article, Our Own Devices, in the May 12, 2008 edition of The New Yorker. The essay is a collection reviews of books discussing technology. Towards the end, though, I found this observation particularly insightful.
In "A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium" (M.I.T.; $39.95), Robert Friedel tells a story that starts with a plow carving up the earth and ends with Apollo landing on the moon. The idea that "things could be done better" holds his analysis together, but, as he is at pains to clarify, "this is not the same as a faith in progress or the belief that the necessary trajectory of history or human experience was upward."

The subtlety of the distinction between the "idea of progress" and the "culture of improvement" is easily lost.

It is very similar to the injunction that the science writer Stephen Jay Gould used to make that biology doesn't have a direction, there is no summit to the spectrum of life.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A-7 Punch Out

A-7 Punch Out Over Loas by Harry Hoffman in the February 2009 edition of Naval History. Just an article recounting an ordinary mission gone wrong in Vietnam. Nothing that changed history but grippingly and touchingly told. A wonderful story of ordinary men doing extraordinary things.
I pulled the face curtain, and as you can imagine, the wild ride in a McDonnell-Douglas Escapac II ejection seat is at least as spectacular as a Disneyland E-ticket ride. The seat worked as advertised. The memory is as one might expect: chaos, cold air, pain, G-forces, noise, and then zap - the reassuring but traumatic opening shock of the chute. The transition from all of this to a "peaceful" downward drift in a quiet, vast, open space is a memory that's etched in my brain. Another is the bizarre sight of the aircraft canopy spiraling slowly away from me toward the cloud tops far beneath my feet.

Half a pound of tea and the poems of Tennyson

Here is an interesting article from the UK's Daily Telegraph. Was Bertie Wooster a Silly Ass or a Wise Man? by AN Wilson, February 18th, 2008. The article is interesting and useful in its own right but as interesting is 1) the fact that it is there at all; I can't think of anything similar in our US papers, and 2) the rich display of filters illuminated in the comments section. In the US we tend to, most often inaccurately, view most controversial issues through the lenses of race whereas in Britain there is still the tendency to see things through class. Hence the conservative, Tory oriented readers in the Daily Telegraph advising the negative commenter Ilia to return to The Guardian (a notoriously labor oriented paper but with a great book section). Also, it is intriguing to see the easy erudition among the commenters.

And here is a revealing vignette from Wilson on Wodehouse. Wodehouse was resident in France at the time of the German invasion at the beginning of World War II.

When he was arrested in Le Touquet, only a year after becoming a D Litt of the University of Oxford, PG Wodehouse was allowed, by his German captors, a few moments to assemble his belongings.

He packed tobacco, pencils, three scribbling pads, four pipes, a pair of shoes, a razor, some soap, shirt, socks, underwear, half a pound of tea and the poems of Tennyson. Then came the big question. Should he pack the typescript of the novel Joy in the Morning, on which he was then engaged? In the event, he packed his constant companion, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

The tales had to be read by children before people realised that they were meant for grown-ups

From Anthony Lawton's site, Rosemary Sutcliff, is this article by Sutcliff on Kipling. Well worth a read.

Sutcliff has these interesting observation's to share on the nature of the challenge when trying to parse an author's works between adult and child.
But before going further with this somewhat random 'piece' on Kipling for Children, it might be as well to try to decide which of his books are in fact for children, and the moment one begins, it becomes perfectly obvious that the thing can't be done. There is no clear demarcation line. All one can do is to make a personal choice and give personal reasons and opinions, and apologise in advance to anyone who disagrees.

The Jungle Books, The Just So Stories, Stalky and Co., Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies immediately leap to mind. But of the Puck books, Kipling himself says in his Autobiography, "I worked the material in three or four overlaid tints and textures, which might or might not reveal themselves according to the shifting light of sex, youth and experience. The tales had to be read by children before people realised that they were meant for grown-ups". On the other hand, two of his full length novels, Kim and Captains Courageous originally intended for grown-ups, have always been read and loved by children, for, at least so far as these two books are concerned, Kipling belongs to the select company of writers - R. L. Stevenson, Rider Haggard and John Buchan are three more - whose books, written for adults, have been taken over by the young. How and why this happens to some writers is a mystery. I have seen it attributed in a recent T.L.S. article, to "A pocket of unlived childhood" somewhere in the innermost recesses of the author's being, and if, as seems quite possible, this is the answer, odd to think how much we who loved Kipling's adult books when we were children, and love his children's books still, may owe to the six miserable years of unlived childhood he survived under the shadow of The Woman, in the House of Desolation at Southsea.

She comments on the nature of the attraction of Kiplings' tales to a young child.
I was something under six when my mother first read The Jungle Books to me. They were my first introduction to Kipling, and perhaps for that reason, they have an especial potency for me. From the first, I had an extraordinary sense of familiarity in the jungle; I was not discovering a new world but returning to a world I knew; and the closest contact I ever made with a "Story book Character", I made with Bagheera, the black panther with the voice as soft as wild honey dripping from a tree and the little bald spot that told of a collar, under his chin.

The Just So Stories, Kim, and Puck of Pook's Hill, must all have followed soon after; at all events I have no clear memory of first meeting them, nor of a time before they were there, a time without the crowding delights and many-coloured over-spilling riches of Kim, on which one can get drunk as a bee among horse chestnut blossom; without the strong magic of The Just So Stories (no one understands better than Kipling did, the importance of incantation, the exact repetition of the word pattern until it becomes ritual "You must not forget the suspenders, Best Beloved" to all primitive peoples, including children); without Sir Richard Dalyngridge, that Very Perfect Gentle Knight, and the three magnificent "Roman Wall" stories of Puck of Pook's Hill which first, as it were, planted Roman Britain in my bloodstream.

Finally, she also comments on the challenge of that increasingly large number of children whom today we call third-culture kids, having to navigate, as did Kipling's characters between multiple loved cultures.
I did not in the early days, of course, see what any of these books were really about. I did not see that under the superb tale of adventure, Kim told basically the same story as The Jungle Books - of a boy belonging to one world, thrown into and accepted by another, and faced in the end by the same unbearable choice to be made between world and world, nor how much the story had to tell about the nature of love and the soul of Man.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The jury fell about laughing

Peter Jones, Ancient & Modern, in The Spectator, August 8th, 2009.
Ancients would have been incredulous that a law could exist that threatened the lives of citizens; and if it did, they would have changed it. In 369 BC, the Theban general Epaminondas illegally extended his and his fellow-generals' term of office in order to complete a successful attack on Thebes' enemy Sparta. So when he returned home, it was to find himself on a capital charge, brought by political enemies. He demanded that, if executed, the following notice should be posted: 'Epaminondas was executed by the Thebans because he forced them to defeat the Spartans whom they had never even dared to look in the face before, rescued Thebes and liberated all Greece' (and much else). The jury fell about laughing and all charges were dropped.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Humbert Wolfe

Humbert Wolfe (1885-1940), a British poet, shows with this little epigram that the current disappointment with journalists is progeny of a long line of disappointments.
You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there's no occasion to.

by Humbert Wolfe

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Pasture of knowledge

The British zoologist, science writer, and winner of the 1960 Nobel Prize for Medicine, Peter Medawar, describing scientists who focus too narrowly on simple data gathering at the expense of constructive speculation:
cows grazing on the pasture of knowledge

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The other side of yesterday

The Island of the Colorblind and Cycad Island by Oliver Sacks. What a romantically mystical phrase:

. . . O'Connell had another side, as a curious and careful observer. He was the first European to call Pohnpei, Ponape, by its native name (in his orthography, "Bonabee"); the first o give accurate descriptions of many Pohnpeian customs and rites; the first to provide a glossary of the Pohnpeian language; and the first to see the ruins of Nan Madol, the remnant of a monumental culture going back more than a thousand years, to the mythological keilahn aio, "the other side of yesterday."

It reminds me of the Russian term for their former frontier soviets, "the near abroad".

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Define: Numinous

Numinous, from a footnote in Oliver Sacks' The Island of the Colorblind and Cycad Island.
Perhaps it is not to be wondered at that octopuses, with their remarkable intelligence, their huge eyes, and their ever-changing forms should excite a sense of awe, of the numinous. I have recently heard from a correspondent in Tasmania, Graeme Thompson, that in the Murray Islands off New Guinea there is also a creator-god, Malo, who is represented as an octopus, his eight tentacles representing eight tribes of the Merriam peoples on the three islands.

From Merriam-Webster:

Main Entry: nu·mi·nous
Function: adjective
Etymology: Latin numin-, numen numen
Date: 1647
1 : supernatural, mysterious
2 : filled with a sense of the presence of divinity : holy
3 : appealing to the higher emotions or to the aesthetic sense : spiritual

- nu·mi·nous·ness \-nəs\ noun

By the middle of the fifth chapter I was able to use a knife and fork

I must have first encountered P.G. Wodehouse when I was around twelve or thirteen. It was my father's guffaws and chortles that first drew me to this author. Blanding's Castle, Bertram Wooster and Jeeves, Psmith; I was soon a firm fan. What a life companion. After that first flush of reading as many of his books as I could (he wrote some hundred books or so), I have been rereading him off and on ever since. When things are stressful or tense, his is a world into which it is always refreshing to escape. As Evelyn Waugh put it, "Mr. Wodehouse's idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in."

After an uncharacteristically long patch without any Wodehouse reading, I just finished Jeeves in the Morning (Audio). Excellent restorative. But in rereading I realize just how rich and allusive Wodehouse is. He is highly recommended for adults but I suspect that fourteen or fifteen year olds that are good readers, interested in Britain, like a consistently positive view of life or just enjoy light but intelligent humor will all take to him.

In doing a little research to check my facts, I came across this appreciation of Wodehouse by the actor Hugh Laurie (who played Bertram Wooster in a Granada series of Jeeves stories), indicating that he took to Wodehouse at thirteen, so perhaps he is accessible to slightly younger readers than I indicated. From the Daily Telegraph, May 27th, 1999, Wodehouse Saved My Life.
To be able to write about PG Wodehouse is the sort of honour that comes rarely in any man's life, let alone mine. This is rarity of a rare order. Halley's comet seems like a blasted nuisance in comparison. If you'd knocked on my head 20 years ago and told me that a time would come when I, Hugh Laurie - scraper-through of O-levels, mover of lips (own) while reading, loafer, scrounger, pettifogger and general berk of this parish - would be able to carve my initials in the broad bark of the Master's oak, I'm pretty certain that I would have said "garn", or something like it.

I was, in truth, a horrible child. Not much given to things of a bookey nature, I spent a large part of my youth smoking Number Six and cheating in French vocabulary tests. I wore platform boots with a brass skull and crossbones over the ankle, my hair was disgraceful, and I somehow contrived to pull off the gruesome trick of being both fat and thin at the same time. If you had passed me in the street during those pimply years, I am confident that you would, at the very least, have quickened your pace.

You think I exaggerate? I do not. Glancing over my school reports from the year 1972, I observe that the words "ghastly" and "desperate" feature strongly, while "no", "not", "never" and "again" also crop up more often than one would expect in a random sample. My history teacher's report actually took the form of a postcard from Vancouver.

But this, you will be nauseated to learn, is a tale of redemption. In about my 13th year, it so happened that a copy of Galahad at Blandings by PG Wodehouse entered my squalid universe, and things quickly began to change. From the very first sentence of my very first Wodehouse story, life appeared to grow somehow larger. There had always been height, depth, width and time, and in these prosaic dimensions I had hitherto snarled, cursed, and not washed my hair. But now, suddenly, there was Wodehouse, and the discovery seemed to make me gentler every day. By the middle of the fifth chapter I was able to use a knife and fork, and I like to think that I have made reasonable strides since.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Life is always more improbable than we can imagine

From Marcus Chown's review of The Cosmic Connection: How Astronomical Events Impact Life on Earth, in the December 6th, 2008 edition of New Scientist.
ON 30 November 1954, 34-year-old Ann Hodges of Sylacauga, Alabama, was taking an afternoon nap on her living-room sofa when a 4-kilogram meteorite smashed through her ceiling, bounced off her radio and struck her on the left hip. The grapefruit-sized swelling it left eventually healed, but Hodges was left traumatised. Ironically, her home was opposite the Comet Drive-in Theater, decorated with a neon sign showing a piece of cosmic rubble streaking through space.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

What a marvellous accolade

Sir Walter Scott's biographer, John Gibson Lockhart, described him as:
a gentleman even to his dogs.

Lockhart's works can be found at Gutenberg.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Henning Mankell interview

An article in The Guardian, February 20th, 2010 about a Swedish mystery writer whom I have enjoyed, Henning Mankell; A Life in Writing: Henning Mankell

His Kurt Wallander series of mysteries are complex portraits of crime set in Sweden. Some of them are on the edge in terms of appropriateness (violence) but are reasonably accessible to older high school students.

And lastly a bottle of brandy.


From the October 18, 2008 edition of The Spectator magazine.

Tell me this wasn't a guy project gone bad.
On 7 January 1785 the Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, and the American, John Jeffries, set out from Dover cliff to make the first successful hot-air balloon crossing of the English Channel. Early on each one accidentally managed to drop the other's national flag over the side, after which the entire contents of the balloon was gradually jettisoned, as it threatened to sink into the sea, including instruments, clothing and lastly a bottle of brandy. Blanchard and Jeffries eventually landed in their underclothes among the trees of the forest of Guines, 12 miles inland from Calais. Their perilous two-hour flight is described by Jeffries in Narrative of Two Aerial Voyages with M. Blanchard.

Friday, March 5, 2010

He prefers it that way

Paul Johnson, in the October 18, 2008 edition of the Spectator, Michelangelo, old boy, do you think you might . . . He is speaking of financial responsibility in general but focuses on the many instances of productive authors who were also compulsively financially improvident or just plain unlucky, including, Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Dylan Thomas, Oscar Wilde, etc. He does not mention any Americans but certainly Melville and Poe could be added to the list. He also tips his hat to their opposites, those authors who managed their affairs well and in turn provided assistance to their unfortunate peers. Men such as Johnson, Carlyle, and Eliot.
There were strong reasons for helping the needy in those days, for men might be arrested for paltry debts and be flung into the Marshalsea gaol, as Dickens's father was. Some never re-emerged. At least two of Lamb's friends died in debtors' prison. If you turned down a request for a 'loan', you might precipitate a chain of events which would haunt you later. It was not just the borrower himself you had to think about. There was a wan, lined, defeated wife and strings of pale children, doomed to lives of want and scrimping. Carlyle, a generous man despite all his bellowing, gave away his silver, like Dr Johnson before him. When Leigh Hunt called, obviously to 'make a touch', Carlyle would simply leave a sovereign or two on the mantelpiece, and leave the room ('He prefers it that way'). Lamb tried to avoid lending to people he knew, remembering Polonius's warning to Laertes ('Loan oft loses both itself and friend'). He gave it outright.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

An exo-genetic path of evolution

I can never be near this harp without plucking at it just a little bit. I am inclined to believe that our adages, fables, folk-tales, myths, phrases, nursery rhymes, etc. are far more important to the sustenance of our culture and civilization than we give them credit for. I don't think it is too much to characterize them as lines of code that carry meaning from age to age. This is brought to mind reflecting on yesterday's post, The mystery of what sinks in in infancy and what flows by is profound quoting at length from Priscilla Napier's A Late Beginner. We know that humans are one of the first species to begin to extend ourselves beyond the constraints of our biological and genetic selves. We are no longer hostage to that which we can memorize; we record and store and retrieve information in ever more sophisticated ways, an exo-genetic path of evolution.

Are adages, phrases, fables, etc. part of this exo-genetic development, a way of passing along useful traits without waiting for them to become imprinted in our genome? I suspect so. Let's look at the sampling of phrases that Napier offers up as a recollection from her own childhood. These phrases are from a hundred years ago; four generations. How many of them are still in common circulation or are accessible? Here is a run down.

She cites 42 phrases of one sort or another that have stuck with her.
28 common parental injunctions such as "Say your prayers". Interestingly, Hart & Risley studies which examined the volume of words children hear pre-school as well as the structure of the language, indicated that children with strong early reading skills heard a ratio of 6.4 positive injunctions to negative injunctions versus children with less developed reading capabilities who heard only 0.5 positive injunctions to every negative. Priscilla Napier's sample comes in at 4.6 positive injunctions to each negative; close to Hart & Risley's findings.

5 lines from rare or uncommon poems.

3 common adages

3 familiar lines from the Bible, hymns, or prayers.

2 lines from common poems or nursery rhymes.

1 quote from a familiar and enduring children's classic book.

The net is that of the 42 randomly recollected phrases, virtually all have been around for several centuries or more, and 37 of the 42 are likely to still be heard in households today. Here are the details.

Wipe your mouth - Common parental admonition still in circulation. Probably been around for a few hundred years.

Say your grace - Common parental admonition still in circulation. Probably been around for a few hundred years.

Tell the truth - Common parental admonition still in circulation. Variants of this in circulation by language or religion for some thousands of years, three or four at least.

Keep your elbows off the table - Common parental admonition still in circulation. Very much a function of extant norms of behavior but probably been around for a couple of hundred years.

Don't care was made to care, Don't care was hanged - I wasn't familiar with this one. Apparently it is a traditional London children's rhyme; offered by parents to children when they declare, "I don't care.'
Don't care didn't care,
Don't care was wild:
Don't care stole plum and pear
Like any beggar's child.

Don't care was made to care,
Don't care was hung,
Don't care was put in a pot
And boiled till he was done.

Certainly something for a child to mull on. I don't know either how old the rhyme is nor how far it has spread outside of London/England. It is quoted by the Opie's in an anthology they published in 1959. I'd grant that this one might be of limited circulation.

Take off your hat, William, to Mr and Mrs Dallin - A parental admonition but really pertinent only to the norms of behavior. While this injunction might still be hypothetically true, the general absence of hat wearing today makes it unlikely to have much current circulation.

Spare your breath to cool your porridge - Goes back to Plutarch, (circa 600 BC), relating that Periander said "Hesiod might as well have kept his breath to cool his porridge." General meaning is that you might as well save your breath, no one is interested or is listening. Versions have been in circulation in Spanish, French and English at least since the fifteen hundreds. Not sure that it is used all that much anywhere today though I understand it might be in current usage in Ireland.

And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat - From the Bible, Luke 15.16. Basically, so hungry he would eat anything. So, at least a couple of thousand years old and possibly older. Recognizable in most Christian circles.

This little pig went to market, this little pig stayed at home - Common children's nursery rhyme first appearing in its traditional form in the mid-seventeen hundreds. Still in widespread use today, often as part of finger play between parents and infants.

Blow bugles, blow, set the wild echoes flying, And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying - The refrain from a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Beautiful, but not a common children's poem and I doubt would have much recognition outside of a convention of English majors. Certainly the cadence of the words are probably catching to a child's ear and given that Napier's family was thoroughly steeped in the military, it perhaps had greater currency within her family than might have been common.
Blow, Bugle, blow
by Alfred Lord Tennyson

The splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story:
The long light shakes across the lakes,
And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going!
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O love, they die in yon rich sky,
They faint on hill or field or river:
Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
And grow for ever and for ever.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

Say please - Common parental admonition still in circulation.

Say yes - Common parental admonition still in circulation.

Say thank you - Common parental admonition still in circulation.

Say sorry - Common parental admonition still in circulation.

Say how do you do - Common parental admonition still in circulation though more in the current colloquial of Say hello!

For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory - The Lord's prayer and therefore both a couple of thousand years old and in broad circulation.

Once upon a time there were four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter - The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter was first published in 1902 so for Priscilla Napier, these were near contemporary stories (she was born in 1908). As much of an impact as they made on her, they have likewise continued to capture the imagination and love of children ever since. I would say a reasonable duration and common circulation among reading families.

Fold your vest - Common parental admonition still in circulation though more in the current colloquial of Fold your clothes!

Clean your teeth - Common parental admonition still in circulation.

Say your prayers - Common parental admonition still in circulation.

Nobly, nobly, Cape St. Vincent to the North West died away; sunset ran, one glorious blood-red, reeking into Cadiz Bay - The opening lines of Robert Browning's poem Home-thoughts. Not lines most people today would recognize but Browning has a surprisingly robust, enduring and committed base of partisans.
Home-thoughts, from the Sea
by Robert Browning

Nobly, nobly Cape Saint Vincent to the North-west died away;
Sunset ran, one glorious blood-red, reeking into Cadiz Bay;
Bluish 'mid the burning water, full in face Trafalgar lay;
In the dimmest North-east distance dawn'd Gibraltar grand and gray;
'Here and here did England help me: how can I help England?' - say,
Whoso turns as I, this evening, turn to God to praise and pray,
While Jove's planet rises yonder, silent over Africa.

Love me, kiss me, Hug me tight - Common children's requests to parents and vice versa. Still in circulation.

Never kiss a lady with your hat on, William! - Similar to above. A parental admonition for adherence to the norms of behavior but with the circumstances surrounding the behavior having changed. While this injunction might still be hypothetically true, the general absence of hat wearing today makes it unlikely to have much current circulation.

It's no use grumbling - Common parental admonition still in circulation though with no particular heritage or provenance of which I am aware.

It's no use fussing - Common parental admonition still in circulation though with no particular heritage or provenance of which I am aware.

It's no use crying over spilled milk - Common parental admonition still in circulation everywhere that English is spoken. The thought is expressed in more or less similar phrases in most world languages (German, French, Arabic, etc.); don't waste time and effort on something that is past and can't be undone. Goes back to at least the 1600's.

Humpty-Dumpty sat on the wall, Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall - Mother Goose nursery rhyme from at least 1800 with the most common version being:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again

That's no way to hold your spoon - Common parental admonition still in circulation (spoon, fork, knife).

Oxus forgetting the bright speed he had In his high mountain cradle of Pamere - Well this allusion is exceptionally idiosyncratic. It references the river Oxus in Central Asia in a couple of lines from a nearly 900 line poem Sohrab and Rustum by Matthew Arnold. The relevant section of this massive poem is:
But the majestic river floated on,
Out of the mist and hum of that low land,
Into the frosty starlight, and there mov'd,
Rejoicing, through the hush'd Chorasmian waste,
Under the solitary moon; - he flow'd
Right for the polar star, past Orgunje,
Brimming, and bright, and large; then sands begin
To hem his watery march, and dam his streams,
And split his currents; that for many a league
The shorn and parcell'd Oxus strains along
Through beds of sand and matted rushy isles -
Oxus, forgetting the bright speed he had
In his high mountain-cradle in Pamere,
A foil'd circuitous wanderer - till at last
The long'd-for dash of waves is heard, and wide
His luminous home of waters open, bright
And tranquil, from whose floor the new-bath'd stars
Emerge, and shine upon the Aral Sea.

I am amazed it is a phrase that stuck with her. I think it would be fairly safe to say that this is one line of cultural code that has probably had virtually no circulation in recent decades, anywhere.

For what we have received the Lord make us truly thankful - Common blessing at a meal and still widely circulated both in numbers and geographically.

Say, no thank you - Common parental admonition still in circulation.

Say, Yes please - Common parental admonition still in circulation.

Don't cough over the table - Not necessarily frequently used but still usually used when circumstances dictate.

Say, I beg your pardon - Common parental admonition still in circulation though more in the current colloquial of Say I'm sorry!

It was no season then for her To wanton with the sun her lusty paramour - The last line of the first verse of a lengthy John Milton poem, On the Morning of Christ's Nativity composed in 1629. The poem in it's entirety is about 30 verses. Again, kind of hard to imagine the circumstances for this to have washed past those young Napier ears unless it is also a church hymn. I think it is safe to assume an extremely limited circulation today.
On the Morning of Christ's Nativity
by John Milton

It was the winter wild,
While the heaven-born Child
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
Nature in awe to Him
Had doffed her gaudy trim,
With her great Master so to sympathize:
It was no season then for her
To wanton with the sun, her lusty paramour.

Finish your mouthful before you speak - Common parental admonition still in wide and frequent circulation.

Mind the step - Common parental admonition still in circulation as circumstances dictate.

Shame the devil - An English phrase from at least the 1500's. Say the truth and shame the devil is it's full form and means to tell the truth no matter how difficult it might be to do so. Not sure that it has all that much circulation today.

Shut the door behind you - Common parental admonition still in circulation and probably been around ever since doors were invented.

Never ask a man his income - Common parental admonition still in circulation particularly in certain classes.

Never ask a woman her age - Common parental admonition still in circulation particularly in certain classes.

I saw three ships come sailing by, sailing by, sailing by - A common Christmas carol in circulation in one form or another since the 1600s.
I Saw Three Ships

I saw three ships come sailing in,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
I saw three ships come sailing in,
On Christmas day in the morning.

And what1 was in those ships all three?
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
And what was in those ships all three?
On Christmas day in the morning.

Our Saviour Christ and his lady
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Our Saviour Christ and his lady,
On Christmas day in the morning.

Pray whither sailed those ships all three?
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Pray whither sailed those ships all three?
On Christmas day in the morning.

Oh, they sailed into Bethlehem,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Oh, they sailed into Bethlehem,
On Christmas day in the morning.

And all the bells on earth shall ring,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
And all the bells on earth shall ring,
On Christmas day in the morning.

And all the Angels in Heaven shall sing,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
And all the Angels in Heaven shall sing,
On Christmas day in the morning.

And all the souls on earth shall sing,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
And all the souls on earth shall sing,
On Christmas day in the morning.

Then let us all rejoice, amain,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Then let us all rejoice, amain,
On Christmas day in the morning.

I saw eternity the other night Like a great ring of pure and endless night - The opening lines to a Henry Vaughan poem. Vaughan was a Welsh poet from the 1600s. The line seems to have captured the imagination of many others including Madeleine L'Engle who seems to have used it as the inspiration for the title of one of her books, A Ring of Endless Light.
The World
by Henry Vaughan

I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv'n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov'd; in which the world
And all her train were hurl'd.
The doting lover in his quaintest strain
Did there complain;
Near him, his lute, his fancy, and his flights,
Wit's sour delights,
With gloves, and knots, the silly snares of pleasure,
Yet his dear treasure
All scatter'd lay, while he his eyes did pour
Upon a flow'r.

The darksome statesman hung with weights and woe,
Like a thick midnight-fog mov'd there so slow,
He did not stay, nor go;
Condemning thoughts (like sad eclipses) scowl
Upon his soul,
And clouds of crying witnesses without
Pursued him with one shout.
Yet digg'd the mole, and lest his ways be found,
Work'd under ground,
Where he did clutch his prey; but one did see
That policy;
Churches and altars fed him; perjuries
Were gnats and flies;
It rain'd about him blood and tears, but he
Drank them as free.

The fearful miser on a heap of rust
Sate pining all his life there, did scarce trust
His own hands with the dust,
Yet would not place one piece above, but lives
In fear of thieves;
Thousands there were as frantic as himself,
And hugg'd each one his pelf;
The downright epicure plac'd heav'n in sense,
And scorn'd pretence,
While others, slipp'd into a wide excess,
Said little less;
The weaker sort slight, trivial wares enslave,
Who think them brave;
And poor despised Truth sate counting by
Their victory.

Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,
And sing, and weep, soar'd up into the ring;
But most would use no wing.
O fools (said I) thus to prefer dark night
Before true light,
To live in grots and caves, and hate the day
Because it shews the way,
The way, which from this dead and dark abode
Leads up to God,
A way where you might tread the sun, and be
More bright than he.
But as I did their madness so discuss
One whisper'd thus,
"This ring the Bridegroom did for none provide,
But for his bride."

The trouble is that it turns out largely to be a fiction

Megan O'Rourke has an interesting article in the February 1, 2010 edition of the New Yorker, Good Grief: Is there a better way to be bereaved. Interesting because it highlights how tentative and theoretical scientific information becomes incorporated uncritically and sometimes dogmatically into popular discourse from which it then becomes difficult to correct.
The "stage theory," as it came to be known, quickly created a paradigm for how Americans die. It eventually created a paradigm, too, for how Americans grieve: Kubler-Ross suggested that families went through the same stages as the patients. Decades later, she produced a follow-up to "On Death and Dying" called "On Grief and Grieving" (2005), explaining in detail how the stages apply to mourning. Today, Kubler-Ross's theory is taken as the definitive account of how we grieve. It pervades pop culture - the opening episodes of this season's "Grey's Anatomy" were structured around the five stages - and it shapes our interactions with the bereaved. After my mother died, on Christmas of 2008, near-strangers urged me to learn about "the stages" I would be moving through.

Perhaps the stage theory of grief caught on so quickly because it made loss sound controllable. The trouble is that it turns out largely to be a fiction, based more on anecdotal observation than empirical evidence. Though Kubler-Ross captured the range of emotions that mourners experience, new research suggests that grief and mourning don't follow a checklist; they're complicated and untidy processes, less like a progression of stages and more like an ongoing process - sometimes one that never fully ends. Perhaps the most enduring psychiatric idea about grief, for instance, is the idea that people need to "let go" in order to move on; yet studies have shown that some mourners hold on to a relationship with the deceased with no notable ill effects. (In China, mourners regularly speak to dead ancestors, and one study has shown that the bereaved there suffer less long-term distress than bereaved Americans do.) At the end of her life, Kubler-Ross herself recognized how far astray our understanding of grief had gone. In "On Grief and Grieving," she insisted that the stages were "never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages." If her injunction went unheeded, perhaps it is because the messiness of grief is what makes us uncomfortable.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Newton and that apple

This is really neat. One of those iconic stories of youth, similar to that of George Washington and his father's cherry tree, is that of Issac Netwon and the falling apple. But Newton's story actually has an historical basis. Newton related the story to William Stukeley who later recounted it in his Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton's Life. The Royal Society in Britain, celebrating 350 years of scientific inquiry, has a collection of manuscripts that can be viewed, including William Stukeley's. Visit their site to access the original manuscript.

Here is a picture of the page from the manuscript in which Stukeley tells the story.

"After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank thea, under the shade of some apple trees...he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. It was occasion'd by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself..."

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

They were sometimes called "paper bullets."

Back Issues, an interesting article by Jill Lepore in the January 26th, 2009 issue of The New Yorker. She covers the history of the newspaper with particular emphasis on its role during the early decades of our country.
Because early newspapers tended to take aim at people in power, they were sometimes called "paper bullets." Newspapers have long done battle with the church and the state while courting the market. This game can get dangerous. The first newspaper in the British American colonies, Publick Occurrences, printed in Boston in 1690, was shut down after just one issue for reporting, among other things, that the king of France had cuckolded his own son. Propping up power is, generally, a less dodgy proposition than defying it. The Boston News-Letter, "published by authority" - endorsed by ecclesiastics - lasted from 1704 till 1776. In 1719, two more Colonial papers began printing: the Boston Gazette and, out of Philadelphia, the American Weekly Mercury. (Nearly every early American newspaper was issued weekly; it took sixteen hours to set the type for a standard four-page paper.) But James Franklin’s New-England Courant, launched in 1721, in Boston, marks the real birth of the American newspaper. It was the first unlicensed paper in the colonies - published without authority - and, while it lasted, it was also, by far, the best. The Courant contained political essays, opinion, satire, and some word of goings on. Franklin was the first newspaperman in the world to report the results of a legislative vote count. The Boston News-Letter contained, besides the shipping news, tiresome government pronouncements, letters from Europe, and whatever smattering of local news was bland enough to pass the censor. Franklin had a different editorial policy: "I hereby invite all Men, who have Leisure, Inclination and Ability, to speak their Minds with Freedom, Sense and Moderation, and their Pieces shall be welcome to a Place in my Paper."

Monday, March 1, 2010

Spirit of the 18th century

From Neil Postman's Building a Bridge to the 18th Century
By the eighteenth century, the idea that history itself was moving inexorably toward a more peaceful, intelligent and commodious life for mankind was widely held. Both David Hume and Adam Smith argued that there existed a self-generating impulse of rising expectations that must lead to a society of continuous improvement. Bernard Mandeville argued that the "private vices" of envy and pride are, in fact, "public virtues" in that they stimulate industry and invention, and Hume wrote that the "pleasures of luxury and the profit of commerce roused men from their indolence," leading them to advances in their various enterprises. If any of this sounds something like what has been called, in our own time, "Reaganism," it is because it was chiefly the eighteenth century that provided Reagan with his ideas, especially those arguments which give to ambition and even greed a moral dimension. The most extreme case for the virtues inherent in self-interest economics was made by Thomas Robert Malthus in his Essay on the Principle of Population, published in 1798. Malthus argued against ameliorating the lot of the poor, on the grounds that an easier life led the poor to have more children, which led to fewer material resources to go around, which led to everybody being worse off. Of course, by this logic the best policy was to allow the poor among us to starve - a position which, happily, has not been pursued rigorously in the West.

But the point here is not that reason is unerring (although when it errs, reason itself, it is alleged, can detect its own errors). The point is that in every field - economics, politics, religion, law, and of course, science - reason was to be employed as the best means of assisting history's inevitable movement toward progress. Montesquieu, in The Spirit of the Laws, attempted to describe the process by which law improves. Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, showed how we advance economically. Thomas Paine showed how the rights of man will and must expand. Vico, Pope, Bentham, Jefferson, and others were engaged in similar efforts toward revealing the felicitous movement of history. (For all of the current discussion about Jefferson's ambiguous attitudes about slavery, he had no doubt that the future would be free of it.) And, of course, no one doubted that the future of science would reveal greater and still greater truths about nature. Here, for example, is an excerpt from a letter by Benjamin Franklin to Joseph Priestley (who, with Karl Wilhelm Steel, discovered oxygen, although Lavoisier coined the word). The letter was sent in February 1780, and conveys the sense of optimism about the future that was characteristic of the age.
. . .I always rejoice to hear of your being still employed in experimental researches into nature, and the success you meet with. The rapid progress true science now makes, occasions my regretting sometimes that I was born too soon. It is impossible to imagine the height to which may be carried, in a thousand years, the power of man over matter.