In every field, there are artists who rise above the rest of us. I look up and marvel at the beauty of the stars. My Uncle Ned, who's a Harvard/University of Michigan-trained PhD astronomer, sees and marvels at astrophysical processes that go far beyond my surface appreciation of a pretty night sky. The same is true of art, music, cooking, botany, architecture, and almost every human endeavor.
William Safire, who died Sunday at the age of 79, was an artist in the field of language. And his voice will be missed.
Artists and experts don't just know more about their subjects; they actually see them differently. Which has its pros and cons. Painters don't just see objects, they see a mix of light and shadow. Ever since becoming a pilot, I no longer see clouds as just pretty puffy things in the sky. I see high Cirrus, which means I may need to depart earlier than planned, because a change in the weather is coming. A breezy day isn't just nice. It means turbulence in the pass.
The ability to appreciate far more layers of detail means that far more details can also irritate. My brother David can appreciate many more fine points of a symphony than I can. But he'll also be bothered by the fact that the horns in the second movement came in just a tad too late. And once you understand the technical elements of a subject, it can be hard to look at it without that magnifying lens. There's a line near the end of the movie Men in Black where the Tommy Lee Jones character, about to have his memories of aliens erased, says that it's going to be nice to be able to look up and see just a beautiful starry sky again.
As they delve further into the details of their art, artists also run the risk of getting lost in their own personal forest of specifics and language, leaving the rest of us too far behind to follow. Which is fine, as long as you don't care about communicating any of your ideas or the wonder of your discoveries to the rest of the world. I interviewed a NASA scientist once who insisted that to say the satellite he'd worked on had a near-equatorial orbit was untrue. It was, he said, a low-to-mid-inclination orbit. I explained that the book was for a lay person audience, and most people didn't inherently know what a low-to-mid-inclination orbit was, unless we explained it further. "Well, any intelligent person knows!" he exclaimed.
The same possibility exists with language. There are purists who, I suspect, are writing more for their own enjoyment than the comprehension of the audience. They're in love with multi-syllabic words, even if only six people in the audience know or can envision what those words mean. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with that, any more than with a jazz artist who cares more about reaching the pinnacle of intense self-expression than commercial success. In fact, I think it's important to have some purists out there, if only to remind the rest of us that the world contains magnificent mountains beyond the familiar, local hills we see and use everyday. It's just important to be clear about the goal, and be okay with the consequences of your choices.
William Safire was fascinated almost to the point of obsession with the details of words, leading to many arcane debates with his readers over seeming minutiae of nuanced word origin, usage or meaning. Live by the sword, die by the sword. And there were undoubtedly times when his own love of little-known words kept readers away from the ideas he was expressing. But he also asked and explored thought-provoking questions--including, inthis 2008 blog entry, whether perhaps Pliny the Younger was the world's first real blogger. And in a world where the instant-word-factory-assembly-line crunch of blogging and email, and the word-annihilation of texting and Twitter (LOL if u no wht i mean), the presence of those who still love, explore, and use the full depths and twists of the English Language--or any language--becomes even more important if the art is not to die out.
I'm not a purist of language; I'm as concerned with getting the point across as I am with the beauty of the words I put together to do it. But I am still a practitioner of the art; a member of the symphony, if not its artiste solo perfectionist. And so I truly appreciate those whose passion skill and knowledge act as a beacon for the rest of us, pulling us further along than we otherwise would have gone.
Ammon Shea, a dedicated word-lover, wrote a book last year about the year he spent reading the Oxford English Dictionary, cover to cover. (Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages). His obsession for the task drove those around him nuts, and I can't say as I have the passion required to follow in his footsteps. But I loved his book, and all the discoveries he allowed me to share. To think! There's actually a word for a fear of dinner parties! Who knew?
I also don't have the stamina of a William Manchester, whose biography of Winston Churchill stretched over three volumes--the last of which had to be completed by someone else, because Manchester suffered a series of strokes that left him, in his last years, unable to write. In commenting on the tragedy of a man whose life's work was the loving caress of words having lost his ability to find them, essayist Roger Rosenblatt recited one of Manchester's passages about Churchill's funeral:
"When his flag-draped coffin moved slowly across the old capital, drawn by naval ratings, and bare-headed Londoners stood trembling in the cold, they mourned, not only him and all he had meant, but all they had been and no longer were, and would never be again."
Manchester, Rosenblatt noted, most likely "had only the scantiest idea where that sentence would end when he began it. Only when he caught up with it could he know. But then, there was another sentence running ahead of him. There was always another sentence. And now there isn't." I still look at Manchester's words ... and Rosenblatt's framing of them ... and feel as if I've been blessed with a combination of master performances so beautiful and perfect that if it they'd been played out in a concert hall, I would have shouted aloud, "Bravo!"
Communication doesn't have to be taught. We learn it instinctively as small children. But the art of language; exploring words and crafting them together with rhythm, poetry, and meaning, is a learned and practiced skill that few ever master as well as Manchester, Keats, Shakespeare, or Safire. Like master chefs, musicians, athletes or scientists, they show us what's possible, and add a layer of nuanced beauty to a sometimes overly practical world.
I didn't always agree with Safire's detailed focus or opinions. And sometimes his immersion in his art may have stood in the way of getting his point across to a broader audience. But maybe, the point he really wanted to get across was simply how much richness there was in this language we use everyday, if only we'd take the time to explore and savor the forest with a little more attention and depth. And on that point, his message was inimitably, powerfully, and exceptionally clear.
The social network learns more about its users than they might realize.
Facebook, you may have noticed, turned into a rainbow-drenched spectacle following the Supreme Court’s decision Friday that same-sex marriage is a Constitutional right.
By overlaying their profile photos with a rainbow filter, Facebook users began celebrating in a way we haven't seen since March 2013, when 3 million peoplechanged their profile images to a red equals sign—the logo of the Human Rights Campaign—as a way to support marriage equality. This time, Facebook provided a simple way to turn profile photos rainbow-colored. More than 1 million people changed their profile in the first few hours, according to the Facebook spokesperson William Nevius, and the number continues to grow.
“This is probably a Facebook experiment!” joked the MIT network scientist Cesar Hidalgo on Facebook yesterday. “This is one Facebook study I want to be included in!” wrote Stacy Blasiola, a communications Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois, when she changed her profile.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
The second episode of the new season was a slow burner with a dramatic twist.
Let’s start at the beginning, with Frank in bed with his wife, Jordan, discussing water stains on the ceiling and childhood entombments. I don’t know about you guys, but I found this whole bit slack and familiar. Maybe there was a two-minute scene in there, but five? Maybe a more charismatic actor could have pulled off that lengthy monologue. But Vince Vaughn is no Robert Shaw, and his childhood basement is no U.S.S. Indianapolis.
The historian and Knesset member Michael Oren accuses the president of distancing the U.S. from Israel, and calls out left-wing Jews and Israel’s Jewish critics in the American press.
In a recent post, I suggested that the intervention of two men, the former U.S. national security advisor Tom Donilon and the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, might help improve the dysfunctional relationship between the Obama administration and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
At the time I wrote this, both men had reputations as people who were concerned about preserving the extraordinarily complicated, and extraordinarily close, U.S.-Israel relationship, and both had spent a good deal of time calming the waters between Obama and Netanyahu. Today, Donilon maintains that reputation. As for Oren …
Put it this way: If Goldblog readers would allow me to withdraw the suggestion, I’d be much obliged. Oren has created a new role for himself: acid critic of the Obama administration and of left-leaning American Jews (especially in the press and in the White House) who, he believes, are trading on their Jewishness when they criticize Israel. Oren’s critique, at its heart, is simple: Obama, in part because he wanted to reconcile the U.S. with the “Muslim world” (a very large, ill-defined, and politically complicated concept, in Oren’s mind), decided to distance the United States from Israel; to surprise Israel by altering U.S. Middle East policy without prior notice; and to negotiate with Israel’s most potent enemy without alerting Israeli leaders.
Over the last two weeks, Republican presidential candidates have repeatedly missed opportunities to demonstrate that they care about communities outside of their traditional base.
After Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, the Republican National Committee published an “autopsy.” “When it comes to social issues,” the autopsy declared, “the Party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming. If we are not, we will limit our ability to attract young people.” The autopsy also added that, “we need to go to communities where Republicans do not normally go to listen and make our case. We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too.”
The last two weeks, more than any since Romney’s defeat, illustrate how miserably the GOP has failed.
Start with June 17, when Dylann Roof, a young white man enamored of the Confederate flag, murdered nine African Americans in church. Within three days, Romney had called for the Confederate flag’s removal from South Carolina’s capitol. Four days later, the state’s Republican governor and senators called for its removal too. But during that entire week—even as it became obvious that the politics of the flag were shifting—not a single GOP presidential candidate forthrightly called for it to be taken down. Instead, they mostly called it a state decision, a transparent dodge politicians deploy when they don’t want to make a difficult call.
The president delivers his single most accomplished rhetorical performance, and it’s one you should watch rather than read.
I think Barack Obama’s eulogy yesterday for parishioners of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston was his most fully successful performance as an orator. It was also one that could have come only at this point in his public career—and not, for instance, when he was an intriguing figure first coming to national notice, as he was during his celebrated debut speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston 11 years ago; or when he was a candidate fighting for political survival, as he was when he gave his “Race in America” speech in Philadelphia early in 2008.
I’ll explain why I say so, but first a word about the odd circumstances in which I’ve heard and learned about the speech.
In 1784, the doctor Benjamin Rush described alcohol as a threat to morality—and a danger to the nascent republic.
Go ahead, have a small beer; it will bring “Serenity of Mind, Reputation, Long Life, & Happiness.” Even a strong beer would be fine, for that brings “Cheerfulness, Strength, and Nourishment,” as long as it’s only sipped at meals. So declared Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the early republic’s most prominent physician. In his loquaciously named pamphlet, An Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits on the Human Mind and Body, first published in 1784, Rush describes the “usual” downward spiral of drink. What starts as water and wine quickly turns into punches and toddies and cordials, ending with a hopeless vortex of gin, brandy, and rum, “day and night.”* In the pits of intemperance, one can expect such vices as “Idleness, Gaming, peevishness, quarrelling, Fighting, Horse-Racing, Lying and Swearing, Stealing and Swindling, Perjury, Burglary, [and] Murder,” with punishments including “Black eyes and Bags,” “State prison for Life,” or, worst of all, “Gallows.”**
In any case, people have probably heard the phrase in reference to something gone awry at work or in life. In either setting, when the shit does hit the fan, people will tend to look to the most competent person in the room to take over.
And too bad for that person. A new paper by a team of researchers from Duke University, University of Georgia, and University of Colorado looks at not only how extremely competent people are treated by their co-workers and peers, but how those people feel when, at crucial moments, everyone turns to them. They find that responsible employees are not terribly pleased about this dynamic either.
Twenty-five percent of Americans are spending more than half of their income just to keep a roof over their head.
If you’ve gone through the painstaking process of renting a new apartment in the past few years, you probably faced some sticker-shock. Vacancy rates are low, really low. And despite ever-present scaffolding, construction in many cities is still slow, as new tenants move in but few move out. The result is that in almost every major metro area, the rent is, in fact, too damn high.
Basic wisdom (which was largely established by rules governing public housing eligibility) warns a healthy bank account means that one’s housing costs shouldn’t exceed about one-third of a person’s take home pay. While that might be a prudent suggestion because, after all, people do have other bills and savings goals, it’s become virtually impossible to adhere to for many who live in major metro areas.