Wednesday, December 28, 2011

By the Book

Practically all the books I own are the old fashioned kind made of paper and ink. I no longer shelve every book as soon as it is read. It has to be “shelfworthy.” I sometimes thin out the existing books on the shelves by asking the question, “Would I ever read this again, even in principle?” You know what I mean. We all own books we most likely never again will reopen, but which we at least can envision ourselves reopening if we had enough time. I keep those, and you probably do too. The ones I wouldn’t reopen no matter how much time is available get tossed.

Nevertheless, the number of books in the house still shows a net gain each and every year. Last night I tried cramming some Stephen Baxter (the Manifold trilogy) on a shelf where there was no room. There was no choice but to push Zola to the right on the very last shelf and then start shifting books from left to right and shelf to shelf all the way back to Aesop. Baxter thereby got the needed space, but Aristotle literally fell on my head in the process, and he was on my mind the rest of the evening.

The rules of logic we still use (occasionally) were formalized in a text written by Aristotle in the fourth century BC. This was a profound achievement. Unfortunately, Aristotle didn’t stop when he was ahead. He wrote on every imaginable subject from zoology to physics, and he got most of it wrong. There is no shame in that. At such an early stage of scientific inquiry, it would be far more surprising if he got very much right. Yet, sometimes he was so very wrong – weirdly wrong – that it forces us to wonder what he was thinking.

For example, Aristotle claims that thought occurs in the heart. The brain, he says, merely cools the blood. Outside the walls of the Capitol building, this is false. Aristotle says that women have fewer teeth than men. I’ll give him the benefit of a doubt on this one: maybe he counted in the mouth of a woman who had fewer teeth, at least at the point in time when he looked. A larger sample, though, quickly would have proven this wrong. He tells us that a heavy object falls faster than a lighter one. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him to try it. He got the laws of motion wrong. An arrow, he explains, is impelled by the air rushing in behind it after it leaves the bow; in a vacuum, he says, it would just fall to the ground in front of the bow. He says that the earth is the center of the universe, and that the sun orbits the earth. In fairness, this was the mainstream opinion of his day, but some ancient astronomers disagreed with it; Aristarchus wrote that the earth and other planets orbit the sun while only the moon orbits earth. Copernicus credited Aristarchus when he revived the idea in 1543. 

Still, once again, there is no shame in making mistakes. The shame belonged to Medieval scholars who relied mulishly on Aristotle rather than do any independent research of their own. Science was stalled for centuries by their acceptance of his authority.

There is something to be said for intellectual authority. All opinions are not equal. When experts clash with laymen, the experts almost surely are right – especially in matters of science or engineering. “Almost surely” is not quite the same as “surely,” however; in more humanistic matters, it is not the same at all. There are cases when the crackpots turn out to be right.

It doesn’t ever hurt to recall Aristotle’s rules of logic (which – amazingly, considering his track record – he got right) and give any topic some independent thought of one’s own. The brain is not just for cooling the blood. Remembering that might even make a good New Year’s resolution. I hope I’ll have more success with it than with some of the others in years past.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Festive Us

Today, December 23 is the day mentioned in the TV comedy Seinfeld as Festivus, a holiday for those who don’t ascribe to any of the traditional ones for this season: “Festivus for the rest of us.” The script writers may or may not have been aware that the 23rd was the last day of the Saturnalia, the weeklong period of feasting, rabble-rousing, and gift-giving that the pre-Christian Romans so enjoyed. It was, of course, originally a solstice celebration. The solstice marked the onset of winter in the Northern hemisphere; everywhere it was celebrated with rituals and feasts. Cattle and other farm animals commonly were slaughtered at this time so that they wouldn’t have to be fed through the winter months; accordingly, more meat for the feasts was on hand than at any other time of year. Besides, in those days, fattening up for the winter wasn’t such a bad idea if you could do it; some lean months might loom ahead.

In 46 BC Julius Caesar somewhat arbitrarily calibrated his new calendar so that the solstice fell on December 25, but no one bothered to adjust the date of the Saturnalia. When a sun cult (Sol Invictus – the unconquerable sun) came to prominence a couple centuries later in what was still pre-Christian Rome, though, December 25 was chosen for the celebration of the Dies Natalis (birthday) of the sun. It was also the birthdate of Mithras, demigod of a martial cult of Persian origin popular with the Roman legions. The Christians, sensibly, often chose existing days of celebrations for their own holidays, and December 25 was a natural for Christmas. For these and other reasons, the Puritans who settled New England did not celebrate Christmas, claiming (with some justice) it had pagan origins – they waged the first “war on Christmas,” to borrow a phrase currently in the news. The Puritans didn’t begin to ease up on this until the 19th century, and some never did.

Julius’ calendar wasn’t quite accurate. It calculated the year at 365.25 days instead of the more nearly correct 365.242; so, it drifted out of synch with the solar year by three days every four centuries. In the 1500s, the scholar Aloysius Lilius devised a simple formula to correct the problem: leap days are dropped from years evenly divisible by 100 unless they are also evenly divisible by 400. So, 1900 was not a leap year but 2000 was. Pope Gregory adopted it in 1582, also chopping 10 days from that year’s calendar so as to re-set it to Roman times. Yet, for some reason, he chose not to reset back to the original 46 BC start date of the Julian calendar (which would have been 13 or 14 days) but to the Council of Nicea of 425 AD. Why is anybody’s guess, but it is possible, at least in part, that he wanted to dissociate Christmas from the solstice. The Puritans, unsurprisingly, rejected the Gregorian calendar. Other Protestants resisted for a while also, but by the 18th century they by and large grudgingly accepted it for its greater accuracy; the British Empire, including the American colonies, switched over in 1752.

A dozen or so friends are stopping by my home this Christmas. Whatever the day’s origins, and whatever personal or religious meanings any person chooses to associate with that day or this time of year, I’m just happy to have another excuse to get together with friends, exchange a few presents, and overeat. I’ve shed the extra pounds from the turkey at Thanksgiving, and it is time to put them back on.

There is one Saturnalian tradition I would like to revive, however, and I’ll see whether the idea goes over. One of the party (convivium) attendees was chosen by lot to be prince (Saturnalicius princeps). He or she could issue commands, which generally were prankish: dance on the table, dump a pail of water on another guest’s head, sing in a squeaky voice with a bag on your head. That sort of thing. On second thought, considering the usual line-up of guests at my parties, maybe that’s not such a good idea.

Festivus Pole


Sunday, December 18, 2011

AB Negative (or The Jingle Brawl)

Last night the Jerzey Derby Brigade at Inline Skating in Morristown hosted a charity all-star women’s roller derby bout, pitting skaters from all over New Jersey against skaters from all over Pennsylvania. The bout benefited Toys for Tots. Non-coms from the Marines and Navy were on hand to accept donated toys. The event was a double header, with an A-Team and a B-Team from each state. Rather than skate two complete bouts one after the other (standard playing time for a bout is two 30-minute halves with a halftime break), the two pairs of teams alternated halves on the track (A-B-A-B).

The teams were in seasonal colors of red and green. Immediately upon entering the rink, I resolved which team was which by identifying a familiar skater by her favored face scarf:  Jerzey Derby Brigade skater Criss Catastrophe was in green. PA skated in red. The toy collection was successful – the boxes filled – but audience attendance was no more than moderate. Regularly scheduled home matches sometimes pull bigger crowds. Those who passed it up missed a fun bout.

It always is interesting to see if all-star teams are as good as the sum of their parts. Since the players haven’t had much time to practice together, coordination that is second-nature with usual teammates can be a challenge. All four teams did surprisingly well. Of the two pair, the A’s were most evenly matched.

In the very first jam of the A teams, PA’s Roxxy Fox blew through the pack and scored the first points of the bout. It was a feat she would repeat again and again throughout the evening as one of the outstanding jammers. In the second jam, Ozzie Clobberpot scored a grand slam (5 points) for NJ. Those two jams set the pattern for the two very competitive teams, both of which were able to score points against the other. A slight edge in defensive blocking, however, allowed PA slowly to build a lead. (For neophytes, jammers score points, blockers try to block them; see video clip at end of Wheel Appeal for more info: .)

The B teams were another matter altogether. PA absolutely dominated this second part of the bout. While not discounting the other skaters (who otherwise were pretty well matched on the NJ and PA sides), Pennsylvania’s advantage owed a lot to two skaters: Shenita Stretcher and V-Diva. Both had skated for Team USA, the all-star team that won the Gold medal at the Roller Derby World Cup in Toronto earlier this month in which teams from 13 countries participated; Team USA bested second-place Canada 336-33. The two skaters were on their game in Morristown last night. Shenita was formidable whether blocking or jamming. V-Diva was all but unstoppable. “Amazon” is not always a flattering word, but in this case I mean it to be; think of it with all its best possible connotations. V-Diva was as comfortable skating backwards as forwards, and frequently did so, which made her an extraordinarily tough blocker while giving extra power to her whip assists to her own team’s jammers. When skating as jammer herself, she pushed through the pack of blockers pretty much at will.

Several other skaters deserve mention. Well, all of them do, and they are listed below. For special mention though, A Bomb jammed gamely for NJ against the very tough PA B team defense. Yoshi Ground Pound and Superstiches stood out for NJ. For PA, Happy Feet, Mj Slamher, and Roxxy Fox drew attention.

PA’s A Team prevailed against NJ 113-61. PA’s B ruled 211-24 – considering the score up in Toronto mentioned above, that’s not so bad for NJ.

The Lineups

 V-Diva in her Native Habitat

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Dating by Numbers

A popular NJ radio station is WKXW-FM (101.5), with an all-talk format on weekdays. (On weekends it plays oldies music.) I’m often tuned to it while driving. On weeknights Michelle Jerson hosts a call-in show called After Hours, on which she asks such relationship-oriented questions as (these are taken from her page at the station web site) “How do you break up with someone?” or “Did you (or would you) take your husband’s last name?” or “Do modern men like aggressive women?” and so on. What always surprises me is how persistent the traditional gender divide remains in the answers even as the socioeconomic realities shift – it’s enough to make an economic determinist despair. To be sure, there are always unconventional callers, but this would have been as true in 1956 as today.

As an example, while I was driving home a couple weeks ago, Michelle asked listeners if they would consider dating someone who was unemployed. The unemployed are, of course, a sizable population in today’s economy, and the downturn has hit male workers especially hard. She predicted a gender split in the answers and she got it. Only a handful of women callers were willing to consider an unemployed man, and even those few usually qualified the answer with something like “if it’s clearly a temporary condition.” Most simply ruled it out. Men callers, on the other hand, by and large couldn’t have cared less if a prospective date was employed, or, if so, at what. They had their minds on other assets.

This is exactly the same division I would have expected half a century ago, despite the radical changes in wages and employment since then. Male wages, for example, peaked in real terms in 1973 and since have collapsed 32%; in the same time, female real wages rose 44%. The result, though, was not to reverse traditional patterns of attraction (most men are still drawn by looks and they still attempt to draw with status), but simply to make larger numbers of men undateable. In her Atlantic Montlhy article “All the Single Ladies,” Kate Bolick remarks, “Recent years have seen an explosion of male joblessness and a steep decline in men’s life prospects that have disrupted the ‘romantic market’ in ways that narrow a marriage-minded woman’s options: increasingly, her choice is between deadbeats (whose numbers are rising) and playboys (whose power is growing).” Perhaps partly in consequence (though plenty of other factors are at work), more of us of either sex just remain single.

The persistence of the old ways is also demonstrated by the ongoing success of Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider who made a splash (and a fortune) back in 1995 with All the Rules, a book of dating advice for women. The advice is unabashedly traditional. “Make him work for it” is the gist. The authors dismiss widespread criticism that their rules are relentlessly un-PC; they work, they say, and that is that. All the Rules still sells well 16 years later. I have no idea whether the Rules really work or not. Nor do I know if complementary advice aimed primarily at men works – e.g. the column by Jeremy Nicholson, the self-styled “Attraction Doctor” who blogs at Psychology Today. I always approached the whole business in a far more haphazard fashion than that, which may explain why I’m single.

Fein and Schneider do not advise on whom to apply the Rules. Nor does Nicholson, so far as I’ve noticed. Given Ms. Bolick’s complaint, this may be an important question. Actually, there is an optimal strategy for making this choice that was published as long ago as 1966. It was first brought to my attention in a blog by evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa, but since he is in the publishing doghouse for having posted an amazingly ill-considered blog, I’ll bypass him as a source and go directly to the original article by mathematicians John Gilbert and Frederick Mosteller of Harvard: “Recognizing the Maximum of a Sequence,” published in the Journal of the American Statistical Association ( ).

I don’t pretend to follow all of their analysis of the so-called “beauty pageant problem,” which applies not just to pageants, but to choices among dates, jobs, movies, or just about any other multiple offering. However, the strategy that emerges from it is simple enough. Start with a fixed number of candidates. (Yes, you need a fixed number, but it can be anything that suits you – ultimately it may be the maximum number of people you are willing to date before giving up altogether.) Next, 1) Reject the first 37% out of hand, and then 2) pick the very next date whose qualities are better than anyone in the first batch you’ve already rejected. That’s it. You’ll have a 37% chance of getting the best candidate. 37% sounds like lousy odds, but no other method produces a better result. The strategy assumes, probably correctly, that you can’t return to someone you passed over – that he or she will have moved on.

The strategy is mathematically sound. Nevertheless, it seems to me that if you’re coolheaded enough to play it, maybe romance isn’t your game anyway. I suggest counting cards at Blackjack instead.

The Beauty Pageant Problem

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Lenny Bruce Wasn't Funny

Lenny Bruce (1925-1966) wasn’t funny. Oh, everyone is funny occasionally, but he wasn’t funnier than the average person. Maybe less so. Is this opinion a personal quirk of mine or perhaps a reflection of changing tastes? Was Lenny funny in his own day? I don’t think so, and I’m old enough to remember his day. He was, as Harlan Ellison said, “a pain in the ass.” Don’t take my word for it. Look up his routines on youtube. A relatively un-scabrous (but typically dull) one is below.

A lot of comedy is timeless. Mark Twain still amuses; Oscar Wilde’s wit still cuts; I Love Lucy is permanently in reruns. Topical humor has a tougher time of it. The political routines of Mort Saul from the 1950s, for example, make sense only to historians or to those who remember the Eisenhower Administration. Only hard-core classicists understand Aristophanes. Nevertheless, if we are properly informed, we still get Mort’s and Ari’s jokes. Sexually edgy humor is a constant, but what qualifies as “edgy” varies over time. In the 1950s the most risqué material was confined to burlesque houses, and it is no surprise that these were where Lenny Bruce got his start.

Lenny was controversial, and that is the reason he won a following (largely of people celebrating their own hipness). Being controversial is not without merit, but it isn’t the same thing as funny. Lenny was famous for getting arrested. He even got arrested in burlesque houses where the standards were pretty lax. Vocabulary was the ostensible reason for most of his arrests. Today, it is hard to imagine anyone being arrested for using four-letter words in a night club act. Nor were all of the arrests in the US. Lenny’s Australian tour was cut short after a grand total of one sentence.

In truth, he might have gotten away with his word choices if it weren’t for the actual content of his routines – the gibes about religion, politics, and basic values. Many folks found them offensive, but offensive views were not illegal. So, those wanting to shut him down had no choice but to use laws that did exist: the ones against obscene language. In the end, the obscenity laws fell, as judges remembered the existence of the First Amendment. Lenny’s many arrests and court cases therefore were important as part of the social revolution of the 60s. No night club comic in the US has been arrested over spoken obscenities for forty years.

Are Lenny’s views still controversial? Yes. His contention that pornography should be provided to children because it is healthier than what they learn about sex from parents, school, and Hollywood, for example, is still outside the mainstream. No one would think to arrest him for saying so, regardless of how he expressed it though; it is even a rare case where he was funny. Some of his antics still might have legal consequences. In one burlesque venue a young lady completed her strip routine with the minimum garb required by local ordinances, so Lenny defied the ordinances by walking out and doing his stand-up act totally nude. Not only could this still get him arrested today, depending on the precise venue, but it might put him on a sex offenders list. Yes, in the 21st century we have become a nation of potty-mouths, but, for all that, a fundamentally puritanical streak remains in us. I’m sure Lenny would continue pointing it out to us if he were still here. He might find few listeners though. Other comics today say it far better.

It is hard to like Lenny. He really did defend and extend free expression by violating the taboos of his day, and we owe him something for that. It’s just too bad he wasn’t funnier while he was at it. A comic is, after all, what he billed himself as being.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Of Apes and Men

“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Yes, but if the name were “red stinkweed,” I doubt the flower would be a common gift on Valentine’s Day.

In politics, partisans attempt to influence opinions with names all the time. Was the 1980s weapons program the Strategic Defense Initiative or Star Wars? Is it the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare? Are we discussing cutting the Payroll Tax or cutting Social Security funding? It depends on what you’re trying to promote.

In the case of newborns, parents always wonder whether to name a child a common name or an unusual one. When growing up, is it better to fit in or to stand out? Few parents are as fearless as Bill Lear who named his daughter Shanda, but then he left her Lear Jet Corporation (among other things), so I suppose that made up for it. There is some evidence that unusual names cut both ways: bearers of them are likely to benefit and suffer in equal measure.

We do know that first names affect career choices, living locations, and even spouses in peculiar ways. There are more geologists named George and dentists named Denise than you would expect by the odds. Women named Georgia are more likely to move to the state. We slightly more often date someone with a similar name (e.g. Raymond/Ramona) than chance would dictate.

Ironically suitable names are called aptronyms, and they are quite common, e.g.
Richard Smalley—nanotechnologist
Lake Speed—NASCAR driver
Jules Angst—psychiatrist, writer of books about anxiety
Novella Carpenter—author
Bob Rock—rock music producer
Ekaterina Gamova—volleyball player, often called Game-Over
and so on.

One influence with which I’m personally familiar is the Junior effect. It gives added emphasis to certain identity and parental issues which are present anyway, with a result similar to the effect of unusual names. Juniors are over-represented in prison and in high office – sometimes both, as in the case of E. Howard Hunt, Jr. and James McCloud, Jr., who led the Watergate break-ins, a crime investigated by Senators Sam Ervin, Jr. (D) and Howard Baker, Jr.(R). That, of course, led to the resignation of Nixon, who was succeeded by Gerald Ford, Jr. and then by Jimmy Carter, Jr. Technically, George W. Bush is not a Junior (his dad is George H.W.) but his family called him Junior, as do many folks in the media. Four of the first seven astronauts were Juniors (Shepherd, Glenn, Cooper, and Shirra). However, let’s not forget John Gacy, Jr., his fellow serial murderer Elmer Henley, Jr., or Jim Jones, Jr. (the Jonesville massacre guy). Some Juniors choose not to mention it, such as Gore Vidal, whose birth certificate says Eugene Vidal, Jr., and Tom Wolfe. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., however, stuck doggedly with it. How much were George S. Patton, Jr. or Martin Luther King, Jr. affected by the nominal appendage? It’s hard to say. Shakespeare probably was onto something, though, when he gave Hamlet (son of Hamlet and therefore a Junior) a conflicted identity crisis.

Now the entire human race is facing a struggle over nomenclature, as readers of anthropology news articles likely have noticed. Once upon a time, among the anthropoids there were hominids (humans and their ancestors) and simians (apes). No more. Now humans are listed among the Great Apes while chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans have joined the family as hominids. What formerly were hominids are now hominins, considered a subset of the hominids. Some classifiers are not satisfied even with that, and have included chimps as hominins along with humans while using the word hominan for humans and their ancestors as a subset of hominins. One can’t help but see something here that goes beyond a strictly disinterested taxonomic discussion. The dispute over names appears to be a proxy for a broader (ultimately more philosophical) argument over the place of humans in nature and among the animals. The question is just how special we should consider ourselves.

I don’t really have an opinion about this classification dust-up, beyond a minor annoyance at having to learn new terminology all the time. It’s OK by me if the new terms stick though. I’m not averse to going a little ape.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

You Are What You Speak

A facility with language remains the distinguishing feature of humans (a few hand-signing chimps notwithstanding), and language is at the core of every human culture. What better way, then, to discern cultural trends than to look at new words and usages? For the English language there is no equivalent to L'Académie français, which dictates what is proper French and what isn’t. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is as close to an “official” dictionary as exists, and it doesn’t lay down rules so much as struggle to keep up with evolving usage by educated speakers. Every year it adds new words and definitions while it deletes some others.

There is not a very high hurdle for a word to jump in order for it to be added to the OED, but there is a hurdle. OED researcher Graeme Diamond explains, “A rule of thumb is that any word can be included which appears five times, in five different printed sources, over a period of five years.” Longevity matters more than frequency, so flash in the pan slang rarely makes it.

What new words leapt the hurdle this year? Over 900 new words (about average) joined the pre-existing 600,000 retained in 2011, and some, in my opinion, aren’t even words, which really does say something about the culture. The newly added “<3”, for example, means “heart” or “love” (look at it sideways), as in “I <3 the band Nickelback so much.” (I don’t <3 Nickelback, by the way, though I don’t actually stab at the radio’s pre-set buttons when one of their songs airs.) LOL, a number of other texting abbreviations made the grade, including “LOL” (lots of laughs), “BFF” (best friends forever), and “IMHO” (in my humble opinion). “FYI” (for your information) dates back at least 70 years in common use, but the OED didn’t add it until this year, I suppose because it seemed to be three words rather than one; if “BFF” is a word, however, there was little excuse to continue to exclude “FYI.” (While admitting that some acronyms do become words, e.g. the 70-year-old “snafu” [situation normal, all fouled up], I prefer to consider most alphabet-soup combos to be merely abbreviations of words rather than words in themselves, but I’m not employed by the OED.)

Lest we forget that the compilers are ivory tower academics, the dictionary adds this commentary on texting abbreviations: “The intention is usually to signal an informal, gossipy mode of expression, and perhaps parody the level of unreflective enthusiasm or overstatement that can sometimes appear in online discourse, while at the same time marking oneself as an ‘insider’ au fait with the forms of expression associated with the latest technology.” Uh-huh.

“Sexting,” “cyberbullying,” and “mankini” (man’s bikini) were added to the OED, which all look as though a distracted typist missed a few keys or the spacebar. Also new are “jeggings” (tight non-jeans that look like jeans) and “retweeting” (forwarding a tweet – “tweet” in its social network sense was added in 2009). Well, wOOt for that! Yes, “wOOt” (hooray) was added, too.

I’m a little bummed that the OED deleted “cassette tape” this year, though. Hey, I still own and play cassette tapes.

On Text-Speak