Advice May 2009

What's Your Problem?

Illustration by Jasno Ford/Heart Agency

Why does the ocean still have all that water when it has all those sponges living in it?
Lawrence A. Husick,
Southeastern, Pa.

Dear Lawrence,

This is an important question. I have not paid sufficient attention to the threat posed by rampant sponge reproduction. I asked Dave Gallo, the director of special projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, whether the oceans are in imminent danger of sponge-related desertification. “Let’s assume sponges hold about 10 times their weight in water,” he told me. “Let’s also assume that there are about 16 ‘average’ sponges per pound. The planet’s ocean water weighs 1,450,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 tons, or about 1.5 million trillion trillion tons, which is a lot. The weight of sponges necessary to sop up all that water would be about a tenth of that, or 150,000 trillion trillion tons, which is also a lot. So, 16 sponges per pound means 32,000 sponges in a ton. Multiply that by 150,000 trillion trillion tons, and you come to the conclusion that you would need 4,800,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 sponges to soak up the Earth’s oceans.”

My brother-in-law Jackson has convinced himself he’s allergic to cheese. What should I do?
Thomas Carney, Alpena, Mich.

Dear Thomas,

Unfortunately, your brother-in-law might be lactose-intolerant. Shame on him. In today’s America—an America of hope and change and acceptance and inclusion—there is simply no room for any type of intolerance, including intolerance of a blameless dairy sugar.

After recently moving to the Philippines for postgraduate work, I’ve had great difficulty meeting women. Everyone here seems to meet others through common friends. I long for Boston, where discussing Dostoyevsky on the train or offering someone a light outside a bar led to, at the very least, more polite conversation. How does one approach women in a culture that sees being gabby as being presumptuous?
Lorenzo T., Manila, Philippines

Dear Lorenzo,

A few days ago, I happened to be riding the T to Harvard Square, and, with your letter in mind, I tried to ascertain whether Dostoyevsky was a regular subject of conversation on Boston mass transit. This is what I heard: for two stops, nothing. Then, by Park Street, the car filled up and I heard the following statements: “Cold.” “Jeez.” And “Shit, I forgot that thing for the meeting.” But then I heard this conversation, between a schlubby MIT grad student and a woman I thought at first glance was Julia Stiles:

Julia Stiles look-alike:

Do you believe that rational egoism, the application of natural law, and higher reason can point the way to a perfectible society?

Schlubby MIT guy:

If I had to choose between a society predicated on the enlightened self-interest of N. G. Chernyshevsky or on the Dostoyevskian notion that people act without purpose, I’d choose rational egoism, recognizing all the while that it represents a behavioral impossibility.

Julia Stiles:

Appropriate choice. Would you like to come to my apartment and see my etchings?

MIT guy:

Depends. What do you etch?

Julia Stiles:

Russian serfs.

MIT guy:

Great. I’ll bring the condoms.

You were right about Boston! But what happens in Boston isn’t replicable in Manila, as you’ve learned. So for you, I suggest patience, and an air of feigned indifference. Chicks dig feigned indifference. At least they did in the late 1980s, which is the last time I dated.

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Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.


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