Thursday, August 28, 2008

To Any Reader (RL Stevenson)

Well this is embarassing. Having posted Stevenson's dedication in his A Child's Garden of Verses I recollected one of his poems which captures some of the magic of reading. I am completely confident that I posted it on the site somewhere but I can't for the life of me find it. Did I just imagine posting it?

Regarldess, here is that magical poem, wherever else it might have disappeared to.
To Any Reader

As from the house your mother sees
You playing around the garden trees,
So you may see, if you will look
Through the windows of this book,
Another child, far, far away,
And in another garden, play.
But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you. He intent
Is all on his play-business bent.
He does not hear; he will not look,
Nor yet be lured out of this book.
For, long ago, the truth to say,
He has grown up and gone away,
And it is but a child of air
That lingers in the garden there.

To Alison Cunningham from R.L. Stevenson

From the dedication by RL Stevenson in his A Child's Garden of Verses to his childhood nanny.

To Alison Cunningham
From Her Boy

For the long nights you lay awake
And watched for my unworthy sake:
For your most comfortable hand
That led me through the uneven land:
For all the story-books you read:
For all the pains you comforted:

For all you pitied, all you bore,
In sad and happy days of yore: --
My second Mother, my first Wife,
The angel of my infant life --
from the sick child, now well and old,
Take, nurse, the little book you hold!

And grant it, Heaven, that all who read
May find as dear a nurse at need,
and every child who lists my rhyme,
In bright, fireside, nursery clime,
May hear it in as kind a voice
As made my childish days rejoice

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Drover's Life by Desert Rat

And here is the alternate view of the drover's life to that presented by Banjo Paterson. In this case the parody is written by a real drover, Wally Darling, who wrote under the pen name, Desert Rat.

A Drover's Life
By Wally Darling (Desert Rat)

As I write this little ditty
Perhaps I'm feeling blue
For the swag is wet and sodden
And the fly is blown in two.

The rain is pouring heavy,
The wind is bloody chill.
And I rather feel like howling
With the dingo on the hill.

No doubt this life is thrilling
Out beneath the desert stars.
When your fitting sole companion
Are a mob of mad Gallahs.

Then the old joke comes to memory.
It was written long ago,
That the drover's life has pleasures
That the townsfolk never know.

When your are sitting on a rooter
With a green-eyed monkey holt
A quiet horse they tell you
But sometimes he'll buck and bolt.

So you hit him in the shoulders
With a pair of three inch spurs.
Next thing you know, you're sitting
In a patch of bloody burrs.

When you are tangling with the clean skins
In the dust and in the heat
And the big Mick with a grievance
Makes a beeline for your seat.

You try to make the fence
But the Mick's got too much tow.
Oh, yes, the drover's life has pleasures
That the townsfolk never know.

When you are coming down the Canning
Where the lonely stages are
And the owner comes to meet you
With his brand new motor car.

And the dust he raises mingles
With that churned up by the feet
Of the hides that you are droving
Some of which perhaps he'll eat.

And when you are sitting on the night horse
On a dark and stormy night.
You see the white-horns glistening
In the lightning's ghostly light.

And you shiver there and wonder
If they jump, which way they'll go.
Ah, yes, the drover's life has pleasures
That the townsfolk never know.

Now the tucker's mostly tasty
On the Canning route you know.
When the flies have had a gutful
And the meat hats have had a go

And when you eat the babbler's browny
Well it's best to close your eyes.
For it's hard to tell the difference
Between the currants and the flies.

Or when you're whipping water
Till your bellows nearly burst.
And your water camel joeys
And you bullocks cry from thirst.

When the feed is mostly scanty
And the waterholes are dry.
The squatters sitting on your back
It's enough to make you cry.

So you reckon that you will truck it in
Give something else a go.
Yes, the drover's life has pleasures
That the townsfolk never know.

You battle down a dusty stage
To a well that's broken down.
Or a tank shot full of bullet holes
By yokels from the town.

And they wonder why you hit the grog
And curse their lousy stations.
Why many a man has cut his throat
In sheer desperation.

So let this be a warning,
To you fellows of the town.
Who want to go a droving,
Where the bullocks all come down.

For if you go a droving
You very soon will know
That the drover's life has pleasures
That it's better not to know

Yes, I sometimes rather doubt it
But then I wouldn't know.
They say that the drover's life
Has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.

Clancy of the Overflow by Banjo Paterson

Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson are two iconic Australian poets. Clancy of the Overflow is one of Paterson's more famous poems and known to most Australians. It tells the tale of a city person's romantic musings about the life of Clancy, a drover (the equivalent of a cowboy).

Clancy of The Overflow
by A.B. 'Banjo' Paterson

I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better
Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan, years ago;
He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,
Just 'on spec', addressed as follows: 'Clancy, of The Overflow'.

And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected,
(And I think the same was written with a thumbnail dipped in tar);
'Twas his shearing mate who wrote it, verbatim I will quote it;
'Clancy's gone to Queensland droving, and we don't know where he are.'

In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Clancy
Gone a-droving 'down the Cooper' where the Western drovers go;
As the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing,
For the drover's life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.

And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.

I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
Ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall,
And the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city
Through the open window floating, spreads its foulness over all.

And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle
Of the tramways and the buses making hurry down the street.
And the language uninviting of the gutter children fighting,
Comes fitfully and faintly through the ceaseless tramp of feet.

And the hurrying people daunt me and their pallid faces haunt me
As they shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste,
With their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy,
For townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste.

And I somehow rather fancy that I'd like to change with Clancy,
Like to take a turn at droving where the seasons come and go,
While he faced the round eternal of the cashbook and the journal -
But I doubt he'd suit the office, Clancy, of the 'Overflow'.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Storytelling as an evolutionary engine

From Daniel J. Levitin's review of the book Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique by Michael S. Gazzaniga in the August 22, 2008 edition of the New York Times.

Human brains turn out to be less different from other animal brains than you might think. Language and social cognition fall along a continuum across species. Deception, for instance, long thought to be unique to humans, is present in monkeys and crows, which can even hide their attempts to deceive. Counterintuitively, much of what makes us human is not an ability to do more things, Gazzaniga writes, but an ability to inhibit automatic responses in favor of reasoned ones; consequently, we may be the only species that engages in delayed gratification and impulse control (thank you, prefrontal cortex).

Gazzaniga doesn't shy away from hard problems, like why humans, alone among species, have art. The attraction to stories, plays, paintings and music - experiences with no obvious evolutionary payoff - is puzzling. "Why does the brain contain reward systems that make fictional experiences enjoyable?" he asks. Part of the answer, he argues, is that fictional thinking engages innate "play" modules that enhance evolutionary fitness (that is, the ability to propagate one's genes) by allowing us to consider possible alternatives - hypothetical situations - so that we can form plans in advance of dangers or even just unpleasant social situations. "From having read the fictional story about the boy who cried wolf when we were children," he writes, "we can remember what happened to him in the story and not have to learn that lesson the hard way in real life." Art may be more than a leisure activity. Artistic, representational thinking could have been fundamental in making us the way we are. As Gazzaniga concludes, "The arts are not frosting but baking soda."

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Reader by Edward Dixon Garner

A poem from For All the Lost and Lonely by Edward Dixon Garner.
He draws the curtain and turns out the light,
Throws to the coals the fuel they require,
Then settles back, to read far in the night,
In the great book, whose author's name is Fire.

Crackers in Bed

I love Norman Rockwell's work but only just discovered this painting from early in his career: Crackers in Bed (1921).


In our house the kids not infrequently stay up late to finish an especially gripping story and despite our best efforts to keep them from eating in bed, somehow it seems they frequently manage to smuggle in some sustenance to keep them going. If he had painted this in our house, it might have been titled Crumbs in Bed.

Norman Rockwell

As far as I know, Norman Rockwell only wrote a single children's book (a pleasant little story Willie Was Different about a talented bird), but his paintings appeal to children as much or more as they do to adults.

Here is an excerpt from his account of his wartime service in World War I. I found his essay in a book, The Saturday Evening Post Book of the Sea and Ships which unfortunately appears to not be in print.

Tall and lanky as Rockwell was, he was initially was rejected for service as being underweight. He volunteered for civilian guard patrols for awhile and then tried to enlist again.
". . . The doctors at Pelham Bay Naval Enlistment Headquarters rejected me because I was 17 pounds underweight for my height and age, so I caught a train to New York, to try again at an enlistment center at City Hall.

The yeoman who weighed me there had been a student at the Art Students League. "You've overdone the starving-artist bit," he said. "We'll have to talk to a doctor."

He led me into a dark little office and explained my problem to a doctor who was sitting with his feet up on a desk and smoking a cigar.

"How much under is he?" asked the doctor, looking thoughtfully at my nakedness.

"Seventeen pounds," said the yeoman.

"Won't do," said the doctor. "We can waive 10 pounds but not 17."

The yeoman glanced furtively around.

"How about the treatment?" he whispered.

"He don't look big enough," said the doctor.

"I want to get in," I said, shivering as chill drafts ran up and down my bare legs. "What's the treatment?"

"Bananas, doughnuts, and water," said the doctor.

"You eat seven pounds' worth, we waive the other ten pounds, and you're in." He pulled open a file drawer. It was filled with bananas and doughnuts. I eased onto an icy chair, my teeth chattering. The yeoman drew a pitcher of water at the washbasin in the corner. The doctor heaped bananas and doughnuts around it. "Go to it," he said.

I began to eat and drink. After a while I staggered to the scales - five pounds to go. So I ate some more and drank some more. The doctor's cigar went out. The yeoman watched me intently.

"I'm going to burst," I said. "I'd better quit."

But the doctor and the yeoman had now adopted my enlistment as a personal cause; it wasn't just one sailor more or less, it was their battle against the Kaiser and all his forces of darkness.

"Come on," said the doctor, peeling a banana, "four more doughnuts and bananas, and more water."

I stuffed. And stuffed. And stuffed. The yeoman weighed me again. "We've won!" he shouted. I could hardly walk; the seven pounds of doughnuts, bananas, and water sloshing about in my stomach threw me off balance. But I managed to struggle into my clothes and totter home."

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Pareto is always with us

Pareto was an Italian economist and sociologist back at the turn of the last century and is most famous for the development of a technique to identify the basic drivers of a situation, i.e. among the many potential causes, which few causes result in most of the outcomes. Very frequently this follows an eighty:twenty rule, e.g. 20% of drivers cause 80% of the accidents.

I have recently finished reading the NEA's 2004 report Reading at Risk. They have the data to answer a number of questions but it is not presented in a fashion that makes it easy to check their figures or do your own analysis.

One of the questions I had was to what degreee is reading a demographically concentrated activity in America. While they do not answer that in the report, there is a way to back into an answer through manipualtion of some of the data they do present along with a couple of conservative assumptions.

The result is that you can determine that 83% of all literature read in the US is read by 16% of the population.

Not surprising I guess, but arresting. It implies a high concentration of "cultural literacy" and capacity for close reading among a small part of the population. Instinctively, I can't help but feel that that is not too good.

Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible . . .

A wonderful essay by E.B. White of summertime, Once More to the Lake.
I took along my son, who had never had any fresh water up his nose and who had seen lily pads only from train windows. On the journey over to the lake I began to wonder what it would be like. I wondered how time would have marred this unique, this holy spot--the coves and streams, the hills that the sun set behind, the camps and the paths behind the camps. I was sure that the tarred road would have found it out and I wondered in what other ways it would be desolated. It is strange how much you can remember about places like that once you allow your mind to return into the grooves which lead back. You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing. I guess I remembered clearest of all the early mornings, when the lake was cool and motionless, remembered how the bedroom smelled of the lumber it was made of and of the wet woods whose scent entered through the screen. The partitions in the camp were thin and did not extend clear to the top of the rooms, and as I was always the first up I would dress softly so as not to wake the others, and sneak out into the sweet outdoors and start out in the canoe, keeping close along the shore in the long shadows of the pines. I remembered being very careful never to rub my paddle against the gunwale for fear of disturbing the stillness of the cathedral.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Everyday Experience of American Babies

A pdf document by Dr. Todd R. Risley describing the results of the in-depth research he and his co-researcher, B. Hart, conducted in order to understand what happens in the everyday life of a child with particular focus on the aspects related to language acquisition.
Here is an extended interview with Dr. Risley in which the research is explored in greater depth.
One of the key discoveries was the gulf between families in the degree of talkativeness and how the degree of word exposure correlates so closely to later academic performance. In the taciturn families, children, by the time they enter school, will have been exposed in aggregate to thirteen million words. For the average family, thirty million words. In the most gregarious, forty-eight million words.
Here is another blog article around the research, Word Counts.

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

In this month's edition of The Atlantic, there is an article by Nicholas Carr, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, worrying about the impact Google has on our reading and ways of thinking. It is an erudite and engaging article but somewhat frustrating - where's the beef?

Carr starts out with a disquisition on how Google and the internet seem to be changing how people think, not just metaphorically but in their practices. After a few quotes and anecdotal citations of his own experience and that of others, though, he then shifts to a discussion of some other historically significant technology changes such as the impact of time pieces, industrial standardization and efficiency, and finally a little about the goal of Google in their pursuit of the perfect search engine.

He has the grace to anticipate the criticisms of being a Luddite and fearing that which is simply new. My frustration is that I wish he would find an argument and stick with it. Is the internet and Google changing your behaviors and capacity for sustained concentration? Then make that case. Do you want to argue the pros and cons of historical technology shifts? Then follow that argument through. It is as if Carr is writing his article in a fashion that bolsters his argument that over-reliance on the internet reduces ones capacity for focused argument and contemplation and leads one to hop all over the place, buzzing about but never alighting.

Carr begins to wrap up his essay with a citation from Plato's Phaedrus in which Socrates worries about the implications of writing as a "technology" for information capture and transmission. We are left almost with an implication of a Greek tragedy, we are caught in the grip of fate and will suffer unknown consequences.

Free will seems to have been abandoned. While this is a graceful essay, entertaining, and a fresh jolt in making one consider a topic, it does seem to leave out any consideration of free will. All new technologies open up the potential for human nature to be amplified for good or for ill. Can the pathways and crevasses of the internet be a corrosive locale that corrupts our capacity to concentrate and reflect deeply on issue large and small? Absolutely!

Are we fated to irreversibly cascade down that maelstrom? Absolutely not.

With three children in or entering their teen years, I am fascinated by both the potential and dangers I see in how they are acculturalizing to the internet. I have been using the internet for business purposes since it's initial evolution and have seen its huge potential. But we are at that juncture where all that potential is spilling into a broader societal context and we have few cultural, technological or legal frameworks to anticipate quite how this will play out in the next couple of decades.

What I am confident of us that we do have free will. This article smacks of those laments twenty years ago when voice messaging came along in offices and people complained about the loss of personal connection. Or of the still current jeremiads against the "avalanche" of e-mails and how that is destroying one's capabilities to focus and prioritize.

These are all tools. We almost always figure out how to use them productively. It might in the 1910s and 1920s, with rutted roads and Mr. Toad drivers, and cars breaking down and operating in (mal)functioning ways, have been impossible to anticipate the day when literally hundreds of thousands of drivers zoom along at sixty miles an hour, a few feet apart and with statistically minimal accidents. But we did get from there to here. So will we with the internet and Google and many of the chicken little concerns will seem yet again to be ill-founded panic attacks.

We choose to allow ourselves to be distracted or not.

Not for lack of spending

From the National Center for Education Statistics - Real per student expenditures for public elementary and secondary education has increased three-and-a-half fold from $2,670 in 1961/2 to $9,266 in 2004/5 in constant, inflation adjusted dollars.

What Use is Literacy?

An article by Myron Magnet, What Use is Literature?, in the Summer 2003, edition of City Journal.

Magnet makes the argument for engaged literacy over the dessicated enthusiasms of some cultural critics.
Literature is a conversation across the ages about our experience and our nature, a conversation in which, while there isn't unanimity, there is a surprising breadth of agreement. Literature amounts, in these matters, to the accumulated wisdom of the race, the sum of our reflections on our own existence. It begins with observation, with reporting, rendering the facts of our inner and outer reality with acuity sharpened by imagination. At its greatest, it goes on to show how these facts have coherence and, finally, meaning. As it dramatizes what actually happens to concrete individuals trying to shape their lives at the confluence of so many imperatives, it presents us with concrete and particular manifestations of universal truths. For as the greatest authors know, the universal has to be embodied in the particular - where, as it is enmeshed in the complexity and contradictoriness of real experience, it loses the clarity and lucidity that only abstractions can possess.

Toddler Literacy

An article from the UK Times, July 24, 2008, Authors Unite Against Drive for Toddler Literacy by Nicola Woolcock.

As the research increasingly seems to indicate that much of a child's future literacy, academic and economic success are determined by the values and behaviors they absorb in the first five years of life before they even arrive in school, the capacity of government to intervene successfully becomes much more challenging. Even in a country such as the UK, it is interesting to see the response to some of the initial efforts along this path.