Sunday, February 28, 2010

The mystery of what sinks in in infancy and what flows by is profound

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.'"

In this passage, Napier muses on children and language; a long meditation but an interesting one.
Lying in bed on those long summer evenings, looking at the square of bright blue sky beyond the window, one sometimes felt locked in eternity, as if the light could never dim, and sleep could never come. Thoughts splashed in one's brain; the waterfall words of the day flowed over one. The mystery of what sinks in in infancy and what flows by is profound; a child a baffling mixture of receptivity and inattention. Waves of words, breaking continually over the impressionable sand, leave weed and stick and broken glass and echoing shell, and sweep as much away. Another tide takes some, brings more; how much unaccountably sinks down to become part of the permanent structure of the shore? Nanny words, reading aloud words, caressing mother words, half-hearted snatches of conversation, of poetry, praise, blame, exhortation; why does some float by and some sink in? Wipe your mouth, say your grace, tell the truth, keep your elbows off the table. There are words so immediate and poignant that they could have been said yesterday, and are said for ever. Sir, come down e'er my child die. One swings abruptly from world to world. Don't care was made to care, Don't care was hanged. Take off your hat, William, to Mr and Mrs Dallin. Spare your breath to cool your porridge. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat. This little pig went to market, this little pig stayed at home. Blow bugles, blow, set the wild echoes flying, And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying. Say please, say yes, say thank you, say sorry, say how do you do? For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory. Once upon a time there were four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter. Fold your vest, and clean your teeth, and say your prayers. Nobly, nobly, Cape St. Vincent to the North West died away; sunset ran, one glorious blood-red, reeking into Cadiz Bay; Love me, kiss me, Hug me tight. Never kiss a lady with your hat on, William! It's no use grumbling, it's no use fussing, it's no use crying over spilled milk.

A mingling of folk-lore, impatience, platitude, affection; a jumble of eternal verity and country precept and temporary slang pours out daily over minds half-hearing, half-differentiating, alternately open as a sieve or retentive as clay. Subtly, day by day, words mould our prejudice, our apprehensions, joys, desires, the unconscious ethic by which we live.

Humpty-Dumpty sat on the wall, Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall. That's no way to hold your spoon. Paxus forgetting the bright speed he had In his high mountain cradle of Pamere. For what we have received the Lord make us truly thankful. Say, no thank you, say, Yes please. Don't cough over the table. Say, I beg your pardon. Reiterated words, falling with the persistence of steadily dropping water and channelling their permanent grooves in the sand: shadowy words, scarce heard and less understood, dappling the landscape of the mind with the mysterious charm and rhythm of their sounds. It was no season then for her To wanton with the sun her lusty paramour. Finish your mouthful before you speak. Mind the step, and shame the devil, and shut the door behind you. Never ask a man his income, never ask a woman her age. I saw three ships come sailing by, sailing by, sailing by, I saw eternity the other night Like a great ring of pure and endless night.

A beguilement of words, a tumbling cataract of sounds, and how much of all is absorbed, and why, penetrating the steady self-enchanted dream of life?

Let them eat eggs

From Roy Sutherland's Wiki Man column in the February 28th, 2009 edition of the Spectator. His article is in the context of a recent change on the part of the British health authorities in which they reversed their guidance of many years standing to the public to restrict the number of eggs eaten per week.
It is an example of the 'hair-shirt fallacy' - the unwritten rule which states that, when in doubt, you should recommend whatever course of action involves the most self-denial. Hair-shirtism is a safe bet: people are instinctively Manichaean and easily persuaded that physical pleasures are bad. Also, while experts are routinely sued for negligence, no one gets punished for excessive caution. The Millennium Bug computer scare is widely believed by many commentators to have been a glitch inflated by scaremongers to apocalyptic status; yet who was sued for failing to downplay the problem?

Adam Smith spotted this bias when he remarked that 'Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience.'

I never really satisfactorily decoded Smith's comment in the past but with Sutherland's context it finally comes into focus.

People had moments of not sharing this view

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.'"

In this passage she describes the world through her eyes as a three year old.
People were too often, in the kindest manner, scaling one down to size, and laughter was the biggest shot in their locker. The sound of it dented, very slightly, the ruthlessly egocentric world in which, as a two- and three-year old, one lives. I was, of course, the most important thing that had ever happened. My dignity and independence, my whole separate being, and essence, could hardly have mattered more enormously. Other people were shadows, were laps for my sitting on, were arms to pick me up when I was tired, were shoulders for me to rub my bumped head upon. But when they laughed, one had a disconcerting impression that people had moments of not sharing this view. I wanted with all my heart to be taken seriously indeed, and there were times when there seemed to be no takers. Kindly, but in a head-throwing-back fashion, my father laughed and my mother laughed. Nanny and May laughed in a particularly belittling sort of way. Ahmed laughed without restraint, getting every ounce out of it, holding his sides, and Ismain laughed derisively, showing the gaps, in his teeth, or, more accurately, the rare teeth in his gaps, shaking his head from side to side, as he stopped up a leak in the hose with his extremely dexterous bare feet. Mohammed was a stand-by; dignified, silent and grave. But even his benign chocolate-coloured countenance divided sometimes in amusement around the brilliant whiteness of his teeth.

A Late Beginner

I am reading 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.'"

What a marvelous memoir, not only of an interesting period but written beautifully as well. Napier was born in 1908 and grew up between Britain and Egypt in the fashion of the day. Her family were of that ilk that formed the backbone of the the British Empire: engineers, soldiers, sailors, lawyers, etc. The people that went to the four corners of the world to make things work and inadvertently to kick-start the slow and fitful integration of the world.

As I read along, I keep coming across passages that bear quoting, either because they are so originally expressed, so beautiful or because they shed light on understanding a different age, a land where things are done differently for reasons we have forgotten.

Not having finished the book, I hesitate to recommend it yet but I will be posting a number of excerpts along the way: there are few better leading indicators of a book's quality and impact than the degree to which you think it is worth quoting.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Teaching - What a tangled web

Three articles touching on education, all coincidentally read within a couple of days of each other (despite their publication dates), highlighting just how challenging the burden is that we place upon schools in multicultural, modern societies. All three articles are at least thought-provoking. It reinforces my perspective that so much is contingent upon the underlying culture of the home from which children emerge to attend school. See Growing a Reading Culture.

First is an article from the August 1st, 2009 edition of The Economist, The Quality of Teachers. Unfortunately the article is behind their commercial firewall so to the library for a hardcopy; I did find this pdf version though. In Britain, most schools are managed from the center, strongly subject to the guidelines and funding of the national government. The experiment described in the article has, therefore a somewhat greater chance of success in that environment than it might in the highly decentralized system in the US. Regardless, the last paragraph argues a willful blindness to the core issue that still makes their gamble a long shot.
Almost all education-policy documents and research papers these days start with a reminder that a child's family background is by far the strongest influence on his educational achievement. This evident truth could spur teachers to greater efforts to lean against that wind; instead, it is generally used to explain away poor children's weaker performance. Teach First challenges such defeatism. "We believe educational inequity is a solvable problem," says Mr Wigdortz, "and that the way to solve it is to get the best people teaching in the most challenging schools."

Great teachers might mitigate the impact of the home environment but they cannot substantially displace it.

Next is this report from the September 19th, 2009 edition of The Economist (again), In Knots Over Headscarves. Again the content is behind their firewall; here is an external link to the article. The final two paragraphs say it all. What do you do when your tolerance of multiple cultures encourages intolerant cultures? And of course, teachers are caught in the middle trying to address on the ground what has not been considered at a policy level.
In short, the story of the Atheneum is complicated. Unintended consequences abound. There are people of goodwill on both sides, and actors with murkier motives. The row will probably lead to the establishment of Muslim state schools in Antwerp: the city already has Catholic and Jewish schools. Patrick Janssens, the city's mayor, regrets this, saying he is "not particularly in favour" of single-faith schools. He puts his trust in long-term development: as more Muslims go to university, or feel that society offers them equal opportunities, they will be "liberated" and "realise that religion is not dominant over all other values."

The story of the Antwerp Atheneum is the latest example of a paradox: how should liberal, tolerant Europeans protect their values, even as they protect the rights of less liberal minorities in their midst? Blanket laws banning headscarves are hardly a liberal solution. But Belgium's piecemeal approach left Karin Heremans running something approaching a ghetto-school. Distrust anyone with a simple answer.

Finally, there is Malcolm Gladwell's article in the December 15th, 2008 New Yorker, Most Likely to Succeed. Here he focuses on the challenge of how do you a priori identify who will be successful and effective as a teacher? An interesting question with significant policy implications which present enormous political challenges. Nothing worth doing is ever easy though.
What's more - and this is the finding that has galvanized the educational world - the difference between good teachers and poor teachers turns out to be vast.

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year's worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half's worth of material. That difference amounts to a year's worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a "bad" school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You'd have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you'd get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

Hanushek recently did a back-of-the-envelope calculation about what even a rudimentary focus on teacher quality could mean for the United States. If you rank the countries of the world in terms of the academic performance of their schoolchildren, the U.S. is just below average, half a standard deviation below a clump of relatively high-performing countries like Canada and Belgium. According to Hanushek, the U.S. could close that gap simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality. After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers. But there's a hitch: no one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Aurea mediocritas

The golden mean in Latin is aurea mediocritas from Horace Odes 2. 10. 5.
Odes, Book II, X. Rectius Vives
Horace

Licinius, trust a seaman's lore:
Steer not too boldly to the deep,
Nor, fearing storms, by treacherous shore
Too closely creep.
Who makes the golden mean his guide,
Shuns miser's cabin, foul and dark,
Shuns gilded roofs, where pomp and pride
Are envy's mark.
With fiercer blasts the pine's dim height
Is rock'd; proud towers with heavier fall
Crash to the ground; and thunders smite
The mountains tall.
In sadness hope, in gladness fear
'Gainst coming change will fortify
Your breast. The storms that Jupiter
Sweeps o'er the sky
He chases. Why should rain to-day
Bring rain to-morrow? Python's foe
Is pleased sometimes his lyre to play,
Nor bends his bow.
Be brave in trouble; meet distress
With dauntless front; but when the gale
Too prosperous blows, be wise no less,
And shorten sail.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Let us proceed as if childhood is reclaimable, in some form

From Neil Postman's Building a Bridge to the 18th Century . Postman continues his almost apocalyptic view of what is happening to our children in the Information Age. Unfortunately his hypothesis has a lot of supporting evidence and I am afraid he is on to something.
Let us proceed as if childhood is reclaimable, in some form. How can we give it a voice? There are three institutions that have a serious interest in the question: the family, the school, and government.

As for the first, it is as obvious as it is depressing that the structure and authority of the family have been severely weakened as parents have lost control over the information environment of the young. Margaret Mead once referred to television, for example, as the second parent, by which she meant that our children literally spend more time with television than with their fathers. In such terms, fathers may be the fifth or sixth parent, trailing behind television, the Internet, CDs, radio, and movies. . . . In any case, it is quite clear that the media have diminished the role of the family in shaping the values and sensibilities of the young.

Moreover, and possibly as a result of the enlarged sovereignty of the media, many parents have lost confidence in their ability to raise children because they believe that the information and instincts they have about child rearing are unreliable. As a consequence, they not only do not resist media influence, they turn to experts who are presumed to know what is best for children. Thus, psychologists, social workers, guidance counselors, teachers, and others representing an institutional point of view invade large areas of parental authority, mostly by invitation. What this means is that there is a loss in the intimacy, dependence, and loyalty that traditionally characterize the parent-child relationship. Indeed, it is now believed by some that the parent-child relationship is essentially neurotic, and that children are better served by institutions than by families.

An effective response to all of this poses difficulties and is not without a price to pay. If parents wish to preserve childhood for their own children, they must conceive of parenting as an act of rebellion against culture. This is especially the case in America. For example, for parents merely to remain married is itself an act of disobedience and an insult to the spirit of the throwaway culture in which continuity has little value. It is also almost un-American to remain in close proximity t one's extended family so that children can experience, daily, the meaning of kinship and the value of deference and responsibility to elders. Similarly, to insist that one's children learn the discipline of delayed gratification, or modesty in their sexuality, self-restraint in manners, language, and style is to place oneself in opposition to almost every social trend. But most rebellious of all is the attempt to control e media's access to one's children. There are, in fact, two ways to do this. The first is to limit the amount of exposure children have to media. The second is to monitor carefully what they are exposed to, and to provide them with continuously running critique of the themes and values of the media's content. Both are very difficult to do and require a level of attention that most parents are not prepared to give to child-rearing.

Nonetheless, there are parents who are committed to doing all of these things, who are in effect defying the directives of their culture. Such parents are not only helping their children to have a childhood but are, at the same time, creating a sort of intellectual elite. Certainly, in the short run, the children who grew up in such homes will, as adults, be much favored by business, the professions, and the media themselves. What can we say of the long run? Only this: Those parents who resist the spirit of the age will contribute to what might be called the Monastery Effect, for they will be able to keep alive a humane tradition, It is not conceivable that our culture will forget that it has children. But it is halfway toward forgetting that children need childhood. Those who insist on remembering shall perform a noble service for themselves and their children.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Comics, culture and influence for good or ill

Louis Menand has an article, The Horror, in the March 31, 2008 edition of The New Yorker, covering the 1954 Senate Judiciary Committee's investigation of the Comic Book industry. Quite interesting. As a Mad Magazine aficionado of the seventies, I had not realized that it's editor, William Gaines, had had such a significant role in these cultural First Amendment battles. Poorly argued as it was, you've got to love the humor of this exchange at the subcommittee hearings of the Senate Judiciary Committee, conducting a public assault on the first amendment over Gaines' admittedly graphic horror comics.
"Let me get the limits as far as what you put into your magazine," the committee's junior counsel, Herbert Beaser, asked him. "Is the sole test of what you would put into your magazine whether it sells? Is there any limit you can think of that you would not put in a magazine because you thought a child should not see or read about it?"
GAINES: No, I wouldn't say that there is any limit for the reason you outlined. My only limits are bounds of good taste, what I consider good taste.
BEASER: Then you think a child cannot in any way, in any way, shape, or manner, be hurt by anything that a child reads or sees?
GAINES: I don't believe so.
BEASER: There would be no limit actually to what you put in the magazines?
GAINES: Only within the bounds of good taste.
BEASER: Your own good taste and saleability?
GAINES: Yes.
Kefauver spoke up. He pointed to one of the covers, from an issue of "Crime SuspenStories," on display in the hearing room.
KEFAUVER: Here is your May 22 issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody axe holding a woman's head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?
GAINES: Yes, sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it, and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.
KEFAUVER: You have blood coming out of her mouth.
GAINES: A little.
There is a very telling observation in the article for "liberals" as Menand puts it or for fans of the First Amendment as I would characterize it.
Gaines was not a stupid man, but, as Hajdu points out, he was in the position many liberals find themselves in when they set out to defend the freedom of artistic expression: he claimed that comic books that treated social issues in a progressive spirit were good for children, and that comic books that were filled with pictures of torture and murder had no effect on them. If art can be seriously good for you, though, it follows that it can be seriously bad for you, and that is the point at which censorship enters the picture.
Too right and the argument has to be answered. I believe children's books to be a wonderful and potentially enormously positive influence on children. How then to address the potentially very legitimate concerns of parents wanting to shield their children from "bad" books? A subject for a separate post, but I do think there is an answer that squares the circle.

UPDATE: The original link now redirects incorrectly within the New Yorker. This is a new link to the book review, The Horror by Louis Menand

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Memoirs, veracity and Augustine

Daniel Mendelsohn has an interesting article about memoirs, But Enough About Me, in the January 25, 2010, New Yorker. I bring it to your attention because it touches on veracity in story-telling which is an issue that seems to raise its head as frequently in children's stories as in the more adult memoirs that Mendelsohn cites. He has some intriguing speculation which I think over-reaches but remains intriguing none-the-less.

As part of the background on memoirs, he tells the story of Augustine of Hippo's Confessions. Though not regarded in the same fashion, I suspect that there are a fair number of YA readers who can access and enjoy the Confessions in a way not dissimilar to Catcher in the Rye. The language gets in the way of most readings but the issues are not all that different to those with which every teenager wrestles. As Mendelsohn describes the story:
It all started late one night in 371 A.D., in a dusty North African town miles from anywhere worth going, when a rowdy sixteen-year-old - the offspring of an interfaith marriage, with a history of bad behavior - stole some pears off a neighbor's tree. To all appearances, it was a pointless misdemeanor. The thief, as he ruefully recalled some thirty years later, was neither poor nor hungry, and the pears weren't all that appealing, anyway. He stole them, he realized, simply to be bad. "It was foul, and I loved it," he wrote. "I loved my own undoing."

However trivial the crime and perverse its motivations, this bit of petty larceny had enormous consequences: for the teen-ager's future, for the history of Christianity and Western philosophy, and for the layout of your local Barnes & Noble superstore. For although the boy eventually straightened himself out, converted to Christianity, and even became a bishop, the man he became was tortured by the thought of this youthful peccadillo. His desire to seek a larger meaning in his troubled past ultimately moved him to write a starkly honest account of his dissolute early years (he is disarmingly frank about his prolific sex life) and his stumbling progress toward spiritual transcendence - to the climactic moment when, by looking inward with what he calls his "soul's eye," he "saw above that same eye of my soul the immutable light higher than my mind." The man's name was Aurelius Augustinus; we know him as St. Augustine. His book was called "Confessions."

As Augustine, a teacher of rhetoric, well knew, there had long been a tradition of biographies of accomplished men - Plutarch's Lives, say, written at the end of the first century A.D. - and of autobiographical accounts of daring military escapades and the like. (Xenophon's Anabasis, for instance, written in the early third century B.C., recounts how he and his troops managed to make their way back to safety after getting trapped behind enemy lines deep in what is now Iraq.) But Augustine was the first Western author to make the accomplishment an invisible, internal one, and the journey to salvation a spiritual one. The arc from utter abjection to improbable redemption, at once deeply personal and appealingly universal, is one that writers have returned to - and readers have been insatiable for - ever since. Augustine of Hippo bequeathed to Augusten Burroughs more than just a name.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Ethiopian Jazz

Swing Along Again, an article in the January 28th, 2010 The Economist. And I never even knew there had been a golden age of Ethiopian jazz.
AFICIONADOS are hoping for a revival of the golden age of Ethiopian jazz, as players who emigrated westward a generation ago, especially to America, come home amid the global recession.

A citizen in the country of books

Courtesy of The New Yorker.


2009_10_19_p139.jpg

Sunday, February 21, 2010

All the odd Words they have picked up in a Coffee-House

Jonathan Swift (Gulliver's Travels) is always rewarding to read. Here is his A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue, an analysis of the faults of the England tongue, how it came about and what to do about it. Gloriously, English has remained one of the most free-range tar-baby languages, always adding and shedding words and phrases in a most unconstrained manner.

Among the culprits fingered by Swift:
Several young Men at the Universities, terribly possed with the fear of Pedantry, run into a worse Extream, and think all Politeness to consist in reading the daily Trash sent down to them from hence: This they call knowing the World, and reading Men and Manners. Thus furnished they come up to Town, reckon all their Errors for Accomplishments, borrow the newest Sett of Phrases, and if they take a Pen into their Hands, all the odd Words they have picked up in a Coffee-House, or a Gaming Ordinary, are produced as Flowers of Style; and the Orthography refined to the utmost. To this we owe those monstrous Productions, which under the Names of Trips, Spies, Amusements, and other conceited Appellations, have over-run us for some Years past. To this we owe that strange Race of Wits, who tell us, they Write to the Humour of the Age: And I wish I could say, these quaint Fopperies were wholly absent from graver Subjects. In short, I would undertake to shew Your Lordship several Pieces, where the Beauties of this kind are so prominent, that with all your Skill in Languages, you could never be able either to read or understand them.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A giddy and aggressive optimism

From Neil Postman's Building a Bridge to the 18th Century.
I do not mean to imply that prior to the written word, analytic thought was not possible. I am referring here not to the potentialities of the individual mind but to the predispositions of a cultural mind-set. In a culture dominated by print, public discourse tends to be characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas. The public for whom it is intended is generally competent to manage such discourse. In a print culture, writers make mistakes when they lie, contradict themselves, fail to support their generalizations, try to enforce illogical connections. In a print culture, readers make mistakes when they don't notice, or even worse, don't care.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, print put forward a definition of intelligence that gave priority to the objective, rational use of the mind and at the same time encouraged forms of public discourse with serious, logically ordered content. It is no accident that the Age of Reason was coexistent with the growth of a print culture, first in Europe and then in America.

We must come back, then, to the first question and ask ourselves, not Jefferson, Does any decline in the significance of the printed word make democracy less rational? Can a representative democracy, even a participatory democracy, function well if its citizens' minds are not disciplined by the printed word? Those who are cheerleaders for digital processes are not concerned with this question. They look straight ahead with a giddy and aggressive optimism to a world of easy and fast access to information. And that is enough for them. The slower, linear, reflective forms characteristic of print are not taken by them to represent a philosophy of thought, a mind-set, a way of ordering knowledge. For the most part, they do not think that intelligence, rationality, and critical judgment have mush to do with forms of communication. In this belief they may be colossally mistaken. Shall we remind them that the people who invented the digital age - indeed, invented the communications revolution - were themselves educated by the printed word? Does this tell us something important? Is there anything to be learned by recalling what the "guru of the Electronic Age," Marshall McLuhan, said about the book as it increasingly ceases to be, as he put it, the ordinary and pervasive environment? He remarked in a letter to a publisher that we must "approach the book as a cultural therapy, an indispensable ingredient in communal diet, necessary for the maintenance of civilized values as opposed to tribal values." Is it possible that as print loses its dominance, the underpinnings of a democratic polity crumble? As we cross the bridge to the new century, shouldn't we at least chat about this? Or are we too enchanted by the information superhighway to notice that there might be a problem at the other end?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Rousseau the disruptive child

From Neil Postman's Building a Bridge to the 18th Century
Rousseau, in other words, was a child of the Rationalism - and yet, clearly, its most disobedient and disruptive child.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Childhood was invented in the seventeenth century

From Neil Postman's Building a Bridge to the 18th Century . Postman has a very interesting chapter on the development of the concept of childhood (roughly seven to seventeen) in the the eighteenth century as an intermediary period between the older view that there were simply two stages: infancy ending around age seven and adulthood thereafter.

He lays out what he see as the challenge to this relatively recent development in stark terms but which I suspect are warranted.
Childhood was invented in the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth, it began to assume the form with which we are familiar. In the twentieth century, childhood began to unravel, and by the twenty-first, may be lost altogether - unless there is some serious interest in retaining it.
He elaborates.
Freud and Dewey crystallized the basic paradigm of childhood that had been forming since the printing press: the child as schoolboy or schoolgirl whose self and individuality must be preserved by nurturing, whose capacity for self-control, deferred gratification, and logical thought must be extended, whose knowledge of life must be under the control of adults. Yet at the same time, children are understood as having their own rules for development, and a charm, curiosity, and exuberance that must not be strangled - indeed, are strangled only at the risk of losing mature adulthood.

Freud and Dewey were writing at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Dewey died in 1952, Freud in 1939, and neither anticipated - who did? - the later twentieth-century conditions that would render eighteenth-century conceptions of childhood problematic. I refer, of course, to the "information revolution" which has made it impossible to keep secrets from the young - sexual secrets, political secrets, social secrets, historical secrets, medical secrets; that is to say, the full content of adult life, which must be kept at least partially hidden from the young if there is to be a category of life known as childhood.

There was no theory of childhood, at least after the invention of the printing press with movable type, that did not assume that the information environment of adults is different from the information environment of children, and that the former is fuller, richer, broader, and, to pay respects to Rousseau and life itself, more depressing and scary. The word "socialization" implies this. It means a process whereby the young are inducted gradually and in psychologically assimilable ways into the world of adulthood. But if the technology of a culture makes it impossible to conceal anything from the young, in what sense can we say childhood exists? Yes, as always, we have young, small people among us. But if, by seven or eight, or even eleven and twelve, they have access to the same information as do adults, how do adults guide their future? What does a forty-year-old have to teach a twelve-year-old if both of them have been seeing the same TV programs, the same movies, the same advertisements, the same news shows, listening to the same CDs and calling forth the same information on the Internet?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

To diffuse books

From Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America published in 1835. Interesting to see that as early as the 1830's in our republic, there was this inclination to spread literacy and knowledge by giving away books.
Those associations only which are formed in civil life, without reference to political objects, are here adverted to. The political associations which exist in the United States are only a single feature in the midst of the immense assemblage of associations in that country. Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions, constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds--religious, moral, serious, futile, extensive, or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found establishments for education, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; and in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it be proposed to advance some truth, or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society.

The Onset by Robert Frost

The Onset
by Robert Frost

Always the same, when on a fated night
At last the gathered snow lets down as white
As may be in dark woods, and with a song
It shall not make again all winter long
Of hissing on the yet uncovered ground,
I almost stumble looking up and round,
As one who overtaken by the end
Gives up his errand, and lets death descend
Upon him where he is, with nothing done
To evil, no important triumph won,
More than if life had never been begun.

Yet all the precedent is on my side:
I know that winter death has never tried
The earth but it has failed: the snow may heap
In long storms an undrifted four feet deep
As measured again maple, birch, and oak,
It cannot check the peeper's silver croak;
And I shall see the snow all go down hill
In water of a slender April rill
That flashes tail through last year's withered brake
And dead weeds, like a disappearing snake.
Nothing will be left white but here a birch,
And there a clump of houses with a church.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Pugnacious spirit

Winston Churchill:
I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.

Monday, February 15, 2010

All high and noble civilisations are beset with anxiety about their own decadence

From a review by Christopher Hart, Slave to Fortune, in Literary Review, January 2010.
Hence the Romans agonised constantly, from the very earliest days, about how the past was better than the present, and now was all decadence. In fact, all high and noble civilisations are beset with anxiety about their own decadence, convinced that their forefathers were better than them. Our current civilisation, on the other hand, is quite convinced it is superior to the racist, sexist, classist, imperialist beastliness of our immediate forefathers. Go figure, as they say.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

New ways of narrating ancient truths to encompass a larger world

From Neil Postman's Building a Bridge to the 18th Century
Where can we find such a narrative as Havel seeks? The answer, I think, is where we have always found new tales: in the older ones we have already been telling. We do not need to invent a story for our times out of nothing. Humans never do. Since consciousness began, we have been weaving our experience of ourselves and of our material world into accounts of it; and every generation has passed its ways of accounting on. And as new generations have encountered more and more of the world and its complexities, each generation has had to reread the stories of the past - not rejecting them but revising and expanding their meaning to accommodate the new. The great revolutions and revelations of the human past, and I include the Christian revelation, have all been great retellings, new ways of narrating ancient truths to encompass a larger world.

We in the West are inheritors of two great and different tales. The more ancient, of course, is the one that starts by saying, "In the beginning, God." And the newer is the account of the world as science and reason give it. One is the tale of Genesis and Job, of Mark and Paul. The other is Euclid's tale, and Galileo's, Newton's, Darwin's. Both are great and stirring accounts of the universe and the human struggle within it. Both speak of human frailty and error, and of limits. Both may be told in such a way as to invoke our sense of stewardship, to sing of responsibility. Both contain the seeds of a narrative that is both hopeful and coherent. My two favorite statements on this matter were made 375 years apart. The first is by Galileo. He said, "The intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes." The second is by Pope John Paul II. He said, "Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes."

I take these men to mean what I would like to say. Science and religion will be hopeful, useful, and life-giving only if we learn to read them with new humility - as tales, as limited human renderings of the Truth. If we continue to read them, either science or scripture, as giving us Truth direct and final, then all their hope and promise turn to dust.

Miep Gies Obituary

I rarely think of Anne Frank's Diary simply because it is so affecting that these many years later it still brings a catch to my throat. As does this obituary of Miep Gies (from The Economist January 28th, 2010), the remarkable Dutch woman who sheltered Anne Frank and seven others at daily risk to her own life and the lives of those dear to her.
BY HER own account, Miep Gies did nothing extraordinary. All she did was bring food, and books, and news - and, on one fabulous day, red high-heeled shoes - to friends who needed them. It was nothing dramatic. But she also bought eight people time, and in that time one of her charges - a teenage girl called Anne Frank, the recipient of the shoes - wrote a diary of life in the "Annexe". In these four rooms, above the office of Anne's father, Otto, where Mrs Gies worked as a secretary, eight Jews hid for 25 months in Amsterdam in 1942-44.

That bringing of books always gets me. These poor isolated people connected to the world only by the shelterers and the written word.

What goes almost unsaid is that towards the end of the war, Holland was a country in full national starvation. Beyond the daily dangers of exposure, the simple act of finding food for eight in a country reduced to eating bulbs must have been a herculean task.

It is thanks to Mies Giep, not only that one member of the eight survived, but that Anne Frank's Dairy survived as well. She it was that collected the scattered pages after the Nazi's raided the hidden loft.
See also the Wikipedia article on this remarkable woman.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

We explore the past we turned away from

Writing of, or from, yourself by Allan Massie in the January 30th, 2010 Spectator. An essay on literary autobiographies.
'All literature is, finally, autobiographical', said Borges. 'Every autobiography becomes an absorbing work of fiction', responded H. L. Mencken, though not, you understand, directly. Certainly the fictional element in autobiography is evident; Trollope thought that nobody could ever tell the full truth about himself, and A. S. Byatt has said that 'autobiographies tell more lies than all but the most self-indulgent fiction'. An exaggeration, perhaps, but one with a kernel of truth.
snip
Experience is itself of two sorts. There is the experience we have lived in what we call 'real life', though this will usually be altered or amended in memory. Then there is the alternative experience, the route which we did not take, but might have taken, the fork in the road we turned aside from. We can imagine that journey and make fiction of it. The novel that emerges may be considered a piece of counter-factual autobiography. We explore the past we turned away from.

Borges may have meant something simpler. If you want to know a novelist - or poet or playwright - read his novels or poems or plays, not a biography. This makes very obvious sense. Even the best biographies track the man or woman revealed in their social life, a being very different, as Proust argued in his reproof of the critic Sainte-Beuve, from the one who wrote. In discussing Stendhal, Sainte-Beuve made much of the memories of those who had known him. Proust found this absurd. 'For those friends, the self which produced the novels was eclipsed by the other, which may have been very inferior to the outer selves of many other people.' What the writer gives to the world is, Proust thought, 'the secretion of one's innermost life, written in solitude'.

And it is this secretion of the writer's innermost life which makes literature autobiographical. You come to know, say, Graham Greene much more fully, and truly, from reading Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter or The Honorary Consul than from the fat volumes of Norman Sherry's biography, which offer the fruit of years of assiduous research. Equally, Dickens is brought to life in Great Expectations much more vividly than any biographer has ever managed to do. It couldn't, really, be otherwise.


Everything as being divided by 1.3 billion

Cyber Warriors, an article by James Fallows in the March 2010 Atlantic Magazine. I have enjoyed Fallows' writing for many years, agreeing sometimes and sometimes not. He has written many books, my favorite being More Like Us, his debunking in the 1980's of the growing hysteria about Japan's rise to economic prominence. He is that old fashioned kind of journalist, virtually extinct today, the kind who goes out, gathers his data, presents it to his reader along with his interpretation: a courteous and productive style.

In the article, which is about China-American relations, military scenarios and cyber risks, there is this observation from one of his interviewees.

Another former U.S. official put it this way: "We tend to think of everything about China as being multiplied by 1.3 billion. The Chinese leadership has to think of everything as being divided by 1.3 billion" - jobs, houses, land.

I think it is an excellent insight anyway and also a useful reminder of the importance of perspective when analysing a problem. It also reminded me of an old Norwegian folk tale that I read as a child, the punch line of which was similar to this observation by the Greek philosopher Solon:

If all our misfortunes were laid in one common heap, whence every one must take an equal portion, most people would be contented to take their own and depart. - Solon

We look at China from a distance and see their progress and their potential. They look at the same landscape and see the tensions and issues of making all this happen. One phenomenon and many interpretations.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Cypresses by Vincent Van Gogh

As I look out at snow falling in the woods, dusk settling down and closing off the world outside, I warm my bones looking at this Van Gogh and can almost smell the dry summer smells of the countryside.

gogh_cypresses_1889.jpg

For hours - so it seemed - the slow June dusk wore on . . .

The Spectator has over the past year or two revived its occasional offerings of poetry. Certainly in the past year their selections seem to be getting more and more engaging in a way that most forums of contemporary poetry are not. Unfortunately their quirky site does not contain the poems which are in the hardcopy magazine.

I especially like Home by Colin Falck in the January 30, 2010 edition. The first stanza:
'Why aren't you in school then?' they'd ask - as we ran to play,
or went roller-skating, or collected caterpillars - or got started in
on the summer's work of dams, or of blowing up wasps' nests
(some carbide, some water - throw a match, get out of the way)
or of building Messerschmidts. Our exams were done. It was June.
There were things we needed to do, and it was time to begin.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

And they found the details of their moral code in sacred texts and history, as well as custom

From Neil Postman's Building a Bridge to the 18th Century
What we may learn from these two great philosophes, Einstein and Mill, is what they learned from their predecessors - that it is necessary to live as if there is a transcendental authority. "One can have the clearest and most complete knowledge of what is," Einstein wrote, "and yet not be able to deduce from that what should be the goal of our human aspirations. Objective knowledge provides us with powerful instruments for the achievement of certain ends, but the ultimate goal itself and the longing to reach it must come from another source." The other source is religion. Neither Mill nor Einstein believed in the stories that give form and inspiration to traditional religious systems, what Mill called the "supernatural religions." But both understood that we require a story that provides a basis for moral conduct and has a transcendent character. They found it in "natural law," and in the capacities of "human nature." In their stories, human beings have innate feelings for the general good and the unity of mankind. Mill called his story The Religion of Humanity. Einstein spoke of Cosmic Religious feeling. And they found the details of their moral code in sacred texts and history, as well as custom; that is to say, in our obligations to those whom we have judged to have acted in accord with the principles of human solidarity. Mill wrote:
. . . the thought that our dead parents or friends would have approved our conduct is scarcely less powerful motive than the knowledge that our living ones do approve it; and the idea that Socrates, or Howard, or Washington, or Antonius, or Christ would have sympathized with us, or that we are attempting to do our part in the spirit in which they did theirs, has operated on the very best minds as a strong incentive to act up to their highest feelings and convictions.

That there is a tendency as part of our nature toward our being "moral" - detesting wanton killing, honoring parents, caring for children, speaking truthfully, loving mercy, overcoming egotism, and all the other exhortations we find shared by sacred texts - is a legacy of the Enlightenment. And that this tendency cannot be proven in a scientific manner but must be taken on faith is also a feature of that legacy, provided that one does not claim absolute certainty for one's belief. For it is clear that most Enlightenment philosophes understood that absolute certainty is an evil that chokes reason and perverts faith; it is, in fact, the opposite of the religious spirit. They did not, therefore, find it necessary to have it "proved" that their narrative is certain, or superior to all others, or logically unassailable. Their narrative had only to be sufficient to guide them to a path of righteousness as defined by reason and historical agreement. The modern Christian apologist C.S. Lewis refers to "historical agreement" as the Tao, the summary of commands and prohibitions found in all collections of moral discourse from ancient Egypt to Babylonia to the Chinese analects to Homer's Iliad to the Old and New Testaments. The eighteenth century could not have used the term "Tao," but this is what eighteenth-century thinkers meant. This is what was "self-evident." And this is what provided courage and optimism.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose

J.B.S. Haldane in Possible Worlds and Other Papers (1927), p. 286
I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn't step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around.

I never realized that Mark Twain took such offense at James Fennimore Cooper's Deerslayer. I know people that have read it and enjoyed it but certainly not Mark Twain to judge by his essay, Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses. Agree with his criticism or not, this has got to be one of the most sustained attacks of slicing wit on a book.
There have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could write English, but they are all dead now -- all dead but Lounsbury. I don't remember that Lounsbury makes the claim in so many words, still he makes it, for he says that "Deerslayer" is a "pure work of art." Pure, in that connection, means faultless -- faultless in all details -- and language is a detail. If Mr. Lounsbury had only compared Cooper's English with the English he writes himself -- but it is plain that he didn't; and so it is likely that he imagines until this day that Cooper's is as clean and compact as his own. Now I feel sure, deep down in my heart, that Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language, and that the English of "Deerslayer" is the very worst that even Cooper ever wrote.

I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that "Deerslayer" is not a work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every detail that goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it seems to me that "Deerslayer" is just simply a literary delirium tremens.

A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are -- oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.

Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.

Inputs affect outputs

Thomas Sowell is a conservative scholar at the Hoover Institute in California. I find him attractive for his predisposition to argue from evidence as illustrated in his many books including Conquests and Cultures, and his very ascerbic The Vision of the Anointed. In addition to being a prolific author, he is also a productive essayist. Education & The Fallacy of "Fairness" is a brief observation on how we sometimes get all tangled up in our language and lose sight of our real objectives.
What they need are the attitudes, priorities and behavior which produce the outcomes desired.

But changing anyone's attitudes, priorities and behavior is a lot harder than taking a stance as defenders of the oppressed and crusaders against the forces of evil.

To the extent that doing the latter misdiagnoses the problem, it makes solving the problem even harder. That does no good for those who are lagging, however much it exalts those who pose as their defenders. "Fairness" indeed!

This is not dissimilar to the situation in reading where differences in performance are ascribed to issues of access or instruction rather than to issues of personal practices and values which is what the data points towards.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Sound like the blogoshpere of today?

From Neil Postman's Building a Bridge to the 18th Century
Some scholars attribute the first "newspaper," and therefore an early example of modern exposition, to the work of the Italian Pietro Aretino, who was born in 1451, only a few years before the invention of printing with movable type. Aretino saw earlier than anyone the value of the printing press as an instrument of publicity, and produced a regular series of anticlerical obscenities, libelous stories, public accusations, and personal opinion, all of which became part of our journalistic tradition and are to be found thriving in the present day.

Inhaling the sweet odors of fruits, spices and gums

From Jack Corbett Mariner by A.S. Hatch and obtainable through www.jackcorbett.com with all proceeds going to the New York City Rescue Mission. Here Hatch recounts how he and three other junior sailors would spend their days while waiting for their ship to be readied for the return voyage to America. This occurred in Liverpool in 1849 - a funny time when the world was still very small and local and yet was at the doorstep of exploding; when countries and peoples and ideas were just beginning to connect on a massive scale.
On Sundays we usually went to church in the forenoon, in compliance with the captain's advice. In the afternoon we strolled about Liverpool, visiting the public gardens, looking at the fine buildings, and indulging in many boyish visions of some day becoming ourselves great merchants, ship owners or bankers. Sometimes we strayed out into the country where there were groves of trees, and picturesque lanes and pretty villas, and, even in this late autumnal season, many sweet sights and sounds of country life, with the busy city lying in the distance half-revealed under the veil of haze and smoke that seemed always spread over it. Occasionally we stopped at little wayside dairies and regaled ourselves with bread and cheese and milk. At other times we wandered along the docks, looking with curious interest at the strange craft from many lands, with their odd rigs, quaint models, and unpronounceable names, and listening to the queer speech and noting the fantastic attire of some of the crews, and inhaling the sweet odors of fruits, spices and gums, or the vile ones of hides and guano and oil, that gave hints of the different climes from which they had come. These were happy, careless days of freedom and of the unrestrained enjoyment of scenes and sights and sounds that were strange and full of interest.

Justice, fairness and privilege

As parents we are always seeking to inform our children about rules and justice and fairness. Our children's stories, particularly our more traditional tales, often also build these concepts (see our booklist Fairness, Justice and the Legal System). No matter how hard we try though, it seems as if sometimes some of the more prominent, or at least news-attracting, members of our society undermine those lessons by their behavior and the headlines they draw: politicians, sportsmen, prominent business people. Why should this be?

This article, Absolutely: Power corrupts but it only corrupts those who think they deserve it, from the January 23rd, 2010 Economist sheds some light. Interesting.
They argue, therefore, that people with power that they think is justified break rules not only because they can get away with it, but also because they feel at some intuitive level that they are entitled to take what they want. This sense of entitlement is crucial to understanding why people misbehave in high office. In its absence, abuses will be less likely. The word "privilege" translates as "private law". If Dr Lammers and Dr Galinsky are right, the sense which some powerful people seem to have that different rules apply to them is not just a convenient smoke screen. They genuinely believe it.

The things you never knew . . .

I must have walked by Liberty's of London hundreds of times in my life. I've even been in a few times to buy Christmas presents and the like. What I never knew, and this fact comes courtesy of Candida Lycett Green in Unwrecked England, is that the mock Tudor face of the building is built from the timbers of the HMS Hindustan and the HMS Impregnable, respectively 80 and 98 gun ships-of-the-line built in the first half of the nineteenth century. There are stories all around us that we never know about.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Happiness II

There is another article, Even in Tough Times, Happiness is its Own Reward, from Laura Rowland in Money & Happiness, January 23, 2008, on happiness research. She summarizes the key findings from the book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approaching to Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky.

I find it interesting that the conclusions they draw from their research on happiness parallels those of our research on reading: Genes play a role as does luck (circumstances of privilege, health, etc.) but ultimately happiness is substantially a product of concious or intuitive decisions on the part of individuals to be happy or to pursue actions that will predispose themselves to be happy.
The good news, Lyubomirsky says, is that we can manipulate 40 percent of our happiness level by consciously adopting the behaviors of happy people. She's the first to admit that some of these strategies -- such as "act like a happy person" -- sound a little corny. "I'm the most reluctant user of self-help literature," she says. "That's why there's an emphasis on science -- to look at what is effective, what works, how it works, and why it works."

Lyubomirsky outlines specific techniques that have been found to boost happiness, and different ways to employ them. They include practicing gratitude and optimistic thinking, nurturing relationships, committing to goals, developing coping strategies, learning to forgive, increasing flow experiences, practicing spirituality and meditation, and being physically active.

She emphasizes that creating happiness requires sustained effort, commitment, discipline, and self-control -- similar to staying in physical shape. "I think it is work, but it's very fulfilling, enjoyable work," she says. "You have to be motivated. The good news is that some of the practices become habitual with time, and, like exercise, do get easier."

This is not dissimilar to what we have found vis-a-vis reading. Life circumstances and native ability are influential but the ultimate determinant of whether a child becomes an enthusiastic and habitual reader is much more closely related to a set of personal actions and activities that predispose them to this desirable outcome.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Addle-pated modernist

Philip Hensher in the January 9, 2010 edition of The Spectator, reviewing Sarah Bakewell's How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Answers.

Eight years later, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne began to write his Essays, a book which still seems to speak to us directly with all the force of rational understanding and an identifiable human personality. If Montaigne marks the beginning of modernity, it is because he tells us exactly what he is like; how he sees the world, fallibly and yet honestly; and because there was no book in the world like it before, and we are still writing books rather like it today.

Montaigne, in common with all great authors, has continued to be infinitely applicable. Centuries of academic readers have found a 17th-century sceptical writer, a rambling Romantic, a Victorian moralist, a modernist experimenting with perception and free association, and, alas, a post-modernist, playing with the random associations and hidden structures of words. Nietzsche was fascinated by Montaigne. Proust is steeped in him; the final image of A La Recherche, of lives extending far into the past and into the future, of men suspended above long tracts of time and memory as if on giant stilts, is taken as if in homage from the Essays.

I guess he passes Edith Wharton's plasticity test.

Happiness research

The field of happiness research is one that is easy to mock and is horribly subject to light headed projects. However, there have been some fascinating studies over the past couple of decades. There is an article, Big Brother Wants You to be Happy, by Laura Rowley in Money & Happiness, February 4, 2010. Rowley features Carol Graham's Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires. I'll provide a link as soon as we get it in. The article in general, and Graham's book in particular, frame the topic of happiness in all its glorious complexity.
Graham's book reviews the recent research on happiness (more than 100 papers were published between 2001 and 2005 analyzing self-reported happiness surveys). Generally speaking, within countries, wealthy people are happier than the destitute, but after that the relationship is complicated. Once people make a certain amount of income, comparison effects start to kick in, and then happiness depends not so much the wealth we enjoy, but how it compares to what our neighbors, co-workers or other members of our reference group have.

Cross-country studies of wealth and happiness are even more problematic. "Across countries we find that on average wealthier countries are happier than destitute countries -- but after that there's no linear relationship," Graham explains. "People in Afghanistan are as happy as people in Latin America, even though objective conditions are worse in Afghanistan. Kenyans are as satisfied with their health care as Americans."

That's because cross-country surveys are rift with mitigating factors, such as innate cultural traits. "Some of the poorer countries are very happy when you look at average per capita happiness and average per capita GDP, but you are picking up cultural differences in the way people answer surveys," says Graham. "Nigerians, Danes and Venezuelans are naturally cheerful in the way they respond. That gets muddied in cross-country comparisons."

For the real twists and turns in comprehending happiness:
And among the truly quirky findings about happiness: People report that they prefer unpleasant certainty to positive uncertainty. Consider the happiness of Americans at the beginning and late stages of the economic crisis that erupted in late 2007. "Happiness levels were higher in June 2009 than in January 2008, although living standards were markedly higher in 2008," says Graham. That's because in early 2008 no one knew the size of the economic storm the country was sailing into, Graham suggests.

Between January 2008 and June 2009, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had fallen by roughly 30 percent, and unemployment had nearly doubled to 9.5 percent, but "the same respondents assessed living standards as better in June 2009 than January 2008," says Graham. "The idea is, 'I'm poorer than I was before, but now I know what I've got to deal with.'"

Graham has found a similar phenomenon in fast-growing economies: People prefer stability to break-neck growth. When a country such as Brazil experienced double-digit growth, "that was a very destabilizing experience," says Graham. "Things are changing rapidly, rewards are changing; people around you are making big gains, so even if you're gaining it doesn't seem to be as much. The uncertainty bothers you."

Friday, February 5, 2010

Pick them up again and tack them on where they were not at all needed

From Jack Corbett Mariner by A.S. Hatch and obtainable through www.jackcorbett.com with all proceeds going to the New York City Rescue Mission.
Jack's peculiarities of speech became more pronounced, and the Irish brogue, mixing with the cockney dialect he had picked up in English ships and about the Liverpool and London docks, which was at other times less noticeable, asserted itself more distinctly when he was deeply moved. The cockney features of his dialect were intermittent. Sometimes he would drop his h's all about in a most promiscuous and reckless way and pick them again up and tack them on where they were not at all needed; while at other times - in the same sentence perhaps - he would keep them where they belonged.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Herodotus and Chesterton on Travel and Customs

Herodotus, the father of history and raconteur extraordinaire had this observation to offer after all his travels around the ancient world.
If anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the set of beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably, after careful consideration of their relative merits, choose that of his own country. Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best; and that being so, it is unlikely that anyone but a madman would mock at such things. There is abundant evidence that this is the universal feeling about the ancient customs of one's country.

Which makes me think of G.K. Chesterton's observation in this post, ending with:
A man is perfectly entitled to laugh at a thing because he happens to find it incomprehensible. What he has no right to do is to laugh at it as incomprehensible, and then criticise it as if he comprehended it. The very fact of its unfamiliarity and mystery ought to set him thinking about the deeper causes that make people so different from himself, and that without merely assuming that they must be inferior to himself.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Jack Corbett Mariner

Just completed a wonderful little gem of a book. Jack Corbett Mariner by A.S. Hatch can be obtained via www.jackcorbett.com with all proceeds going to The New York City Rescue Mission. A.S. Hatch was one of the wealthy bankers of the gilded era of American commerce when fortunes were being made through finance, industrialization and national expansion (including railroads and canals). Hatch's origins were humble and provincial. He was born in 1829 in Vermont to a country doctor.

Slight and asthmatic, his father recommended that he ship as a sailor, which experience would either "cure him or kill him". Clearly someone had been reading Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast (published 1840). In 1849 Hatch came to New York to find a suitable ship. While lodging in seaman's quarters along the harbor front, he struck up a friendship with an older sailor, Jack Corbett. Corbett took Hatch under wing, found a well captained and crewed ship and encouraged Hatch to sign on. They shipped in a Liverpool packet, the ships of the period that carried miscellaneous cargo to Britain but made their primary money by bringing the tens of thousands of emigrants (particularly refugees of the Irish potato famine) to America on the return voyage.

Corbett looked out for Hatch and taught him all that he needed to know to be a competent sailor and more importantly to survive the perilous duties of a sailor of the north Atlantic in the winter. Hatch and Corbett became separated after that first voyage. Hatch ended up making two voyages. He then went on to make his fortune as a banker and financier.

Thirty years passed before an aged Corbett found Hatch and made contact with him again. Hatch took him on as a family retainer, general handyman, and life guard of his eleven children.

In his later years, Hatch wrote up an account of his early sailing days and his adventures with Corbett. The manuscript knocked around the family for a century or so before his grandson, Denny Hatch, prepared it for publication. Apparently it only required light editing. This is quite remarkable as the language feels almost contemporary. In this regard it is not dissimilar to Clarence Day's Father books or Frank Gilbreth's Cheaper by the Dozen.

Touching, informative of an often overlooked but fascinating period of American history, and simply a compelling read, this is to be recommended to any adult and YA interested in history, maritime tales, or anyone prepared to be touched by a very human story.

The dedication by Hatch gives you a flavor of the book:
To JACK Who was my rough but tender guardian and mentor amid the hardships and perils and in the unaccustomed duties of my first voyage at sea: who afterwards became a humble but useful member of my household ashore and the faithful playmate and protector of my children in their aquatic sports and who died in my arms this book is affectionately dedicated.

Books and Religion

I came across this painting which I find fascinating. Painted in 1509 by Jean Bellegambe (active from 1504-1534), this triptych is titled The Le Cellier Altarpiece and is held by the Metropolitan Museum of art in New York City.

Bellegambe_Metropolitan_LeCellier_Altarpiece_open.jpg

It is the centerpiece which caught my eye. This is believed to have been painted in 1509, seventy years after Johannes Gutenberg's initial invention of the printing press in 1439.

Jehan_Bellegambe_-_Le_Cellier_Triptych_15th_Century.jpg


Look at all the books in this scene. Only seventy years. This seems to capture early evidence of that delicate tipping point where books, rationality and broad based discourse substantially intersected with a predominately religious world view. The painting is beautiful in its own right (I particularly am attracted to the use of colors, the light and the architectural sense of perspective) but it seems to be a harbinger as well.

Cellier6.jpg

Cellier4.jpg

Cellier5.jpg

Define: Mithridatism

Mithridatism, from a review by Tom Holland in Literary Review, January 2010.
What really made Mithridates's name, though, and has ensured its commemoration in a whole host of European languages, was his mastery of poisons. The English word 'mithridatism', meaning 'the practice of systematically ingesting small doses of deadly substances to make oneself immune to them' , is to this day a fitting tribute to his toxocological obsessions.

Merriam-Webster:
Main Entry: mith·ri·da·tism
Pronunciation: \ˌmith-rə-ˈdāt-ˌiz-əm\
Function: noun
Mith·ra·da·tes VI Eu·pa·tor \ˌmith-rə-ˈdāt-ēz-ˈsiks-ˈyü-pə-ˌtȯr\ (died 63 BC), king of Pontus. Mithradates the Great ruled from 120–63 BC. A great military leader, a brave warrior, and a cunning politician, he was one of the few serious threats to Roman domination in the ancient world. A revolt of his own soldiers led him to attempt to take his own life. According to legend, he was ever suspicious of treachery, so he had consumed doses of poison in increasingly greater amounts in order to build up a tolerance. When he vainly sought to commit suicide, he found that he had become totally immune to poison. He finally resorted to ordering a follower to stab him to death.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

We are a living metaphor

From the New York Times, February 1, 2010, Abstract Thoughts? The Body Takes Them Literally.

Turner and the Cayman Trough

A.C. Grayling, Where no one has gone before, in the August 23, 2008 edition of the Spectator on the excitement of exploration and imagination.
As Turner saw, a society that explores is in little danger of becoming stale. That applies to a society's collective intelligence as well as its scientific muscle: they both need to be challenged and exercised. Like all front-line science, the Autosub6000 project is good news because it takes us to a genuine frontier, with all the promise it offers.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Avoiding the Wide World

From The Spectator, December 19, 2009. Avoiding the Wide World by Susan Hill. An interesting discussion about one of the more wonderful of our children's classics, Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, by one of the most quietly striking authors of today.
In 1903, a shocking incident took place at the Bank of England, where the soon-to-be author of one of the most magical of all children's books was then Secretary. A man had walked in from the street asking to see the Governor but had to settle for Grahame. He held out a roll of paper with two ribbons tied round it, one black, one white, and asked Grahame to pull either one. Grahame chose the black and when he pulled it the man took out a shotgun and fired three times at Grahame. Every shot missed.

Kenneth Grahame had never much cared for the Wide World and now he retreated into the past, the idyll, as he remembered it, of the years he spent as a child living with his grandmother in the beautiful Thames-side village of Cookham Dean. In fact, those years were a mere two, but any perfect period of time has no limit, it expands in the memory and those happy, carefree days with his siblings spent playing around the river are at the heart of Grahame's classic story.

To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought

From Neil Postman's Building a Bridge to the 18th Century .
From Erasmus in the sixteenth century to Elizabeth Eisenstein in the twentieth, almost every scholar who has grappled with the question of what reading does to one's habits of mind has concluded that the process encourages rationality; that the sequential, propositional character of the printed word fosters what Walter Ong calls the "analytic management of knowledge." To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making, and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another. To accomplish this, one must achieve a certain distance from the words themselves, which is, in fact, encouraged by the isolated and impersonal text. That is why a good reader does not cheer an apt sentence or pause to applaud even an inspired paragraph. Analytic thought is too busy for that, and too detached.