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.
In a new book, the former Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross explores just how close Israel came to attacking Iran, and why Susan Rice accused Benjamin Netanyahu of throwing “everything but the n-word” at Barack Obama.
Updated on October 9, 2015 at 12:40 p.m.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in Washington early next month for a meeting with President Obama, he should at least know that he is more popular in the White House than Vladimir Putin. But not by much.
This meeting will not reset the relationship between the two men in any significant way, and not only because Netanyahu has decided to troll Obama by accepting the Irving Kristol Award from the American Enterprise Institute on this same short trip. The meeting between the two leaders will most likely be businesslike and correct, but the gap between the two is essentially unbridgeable. From Netanyahu’s perspective, the hopelessly naive Obama broke a solemn promise to never allow Iran to cross the nuclear threshold. From Obama’s perspective, Netanyahu violated crucial norms of U.S.-Israel relations by publicly and bitterly criticizing an Iran deal that—from Obama’s perspective—protects Israel, and then by taking the nearly unprecedented step of organizing a partisan (and, by the way, losing and self-destructive) lobbying campaign against the deal on Capitol Hill.
Some of Charles Schulz’s fans blame the cartoon dog for ruining Peanuts. Here’s why they’re wrong.
It really was a dark and stormy night. On February 12, 2000, Charles Schulz—who had single-handedly drawn some 18,000 Peanuts comic strips, who refused to use assistants to ink or letter his comics, who vowed that after he quit, no new Peanuts strips would be made—died, taking to the grave, it seemed, any further adventures of the gang.
Hours later, his last Sunday strip came out with a farewell: “Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy … How can I ever forget them.” By then, Peanuts was carried by more than 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries and read by some 300 million people. It had been going for five decades. Robert Thompson, a scholar of popular culture, called it “arguably the longest story told by a single artist in human history.”
A new report details a black market in nuclear materials.
On Wednesday, the Associated Press published a horrifying report about criminal networks in the former Soviet Union trying to sell “radioactive material to Middle Eastern extremists.” At the center of these cases, of which the AP learned of four in the past five years, was a “thriving black market in nuclear materials” in a “tiny and impoverished Eastern European country”: Moldova.
It’s a new iteration of an old problem with a familiar geography. The breakup of the Soviet Union left a superpower’s worth of nuclear weapons scattered across several countries without a superpower’s capacity to keep track of them. When Harvard’s Graham Allison flagged this problem in 1996, he wrote that the collapse of Russia’s “command-and-control society” left nothing secure. To wit:
What’s the balance between preparing students for college and ensuring they aren’t killing themselves in the process?
Kids who go to elite private high schools enjoy lots of advantages. They have access to the most challenging academic classes at reputable institutions, with staffs that are well-equipped to help them prepare for college. Parents pay an average of $10,000 per year to ensure their kids this privilege.
And yet the rigor that these opportunities demand can come with an extra cost for the students themselves. A recent study surveyed and interviewed students at a handful of these high schools and found that about half of them are chronically stressed. The results aren’t surprising—between the homework required for Advanced Placement classes, sports practices, extracurricular activities like music and student government, and SAT prep, the fortunate kids who have access to these opportunities don’t have much downtime these days. These experiences can cause kids to burn out by the time they get to college, or to feel the psychological and physical effects of stress for much of their adult lives, says Marya Gwadz, a senior research scientist at the New York University College of Nursing.
The leaderless GOP begins its search for a speaker anew, starting with a campaign to draft Paul Ryan.
First Eric Cantor. Then John Boehner. Now Kevin McCarthy.
Conservatives in and out of Congress have, within a span of 15 months, tossed aside three of the four men most instrumental in the 2010 victory that gave Republicans their majority in the House. When the leaderless and divided party gathers on Friday to begin anew its search for a speaker, the biggest question will be whether that fourth man, Paul Ryan, will take a job that for the moment, only he can win.
Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential nominee and chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, has for years resisted entreaties to run for speaker, citing the demands of the job on his young family and his desire to run the tax-writing panel, which he has called his “dream job.” And he did so again on Thursday, within minutes of McCarthy’s abrupt decision to abandon a race he had been favored to win. “I will not be a candidate for speaker,” Ryan tweeted. Yet the pressure kept coming. Lawmakers brought up his name throughout the day, and there were reports that Boehner himself had personally implored him to change his mind.
Kids who are adopted have richer, more involved parents. They also have more behavior and attention problems. Why?
Being adopted can be one of the best things to happen to a kid. People who adopt tend to be wealthier than other parents, both because of self-selection and because of the adoption screening process. Adoptive parents tend to be better-educated and put more effort into raising their kids, as measured by things like eating family meals together, providing the child with books, and getting involved in their schools.
And yet, as rated by their teachers and tests, adopted children tend to have worse behavioral and academic outcomes in kindergarten and first grade than birth children do, according to a new research brief from the Institute for Family Studies written by psychologist Nicholas Zill.
What insight can the new video game Prison Architect offer into the structures and complexities of incarceration in America?
The first person to die in an electric chair was William Kemmler, a peddler from Philadelphia who murdered his common-law wife in the summer of 1890. 1000 volts of electricity, tested the day before on a luckless horse, knocked Kemmler unconscious, but didn’t stop his heart. In a panic, the warden doubled the voltage. 2000 volts of alternating current ruptured Kemmler’s capillaries, forming subcutaneous pools of blood that began to burst as his skin was torn apart. Witnesses reported being overcome by the smell of molten flesh and charred body hair; those who tried to leave found that the doors were locked. The next morning, The New York Times called the execution a “disgrace to civilization … so terrible that words cannot begin to describe it.” The irony, lost on no one, was that until that morning, electrocution had been promoted as a more humane form of capital punishment.
A new tally of the those killed last month makes it the deadliest-ever disaster at the annual pilgrimage.
The death toll in last month’s Hajj stampede in Saudi Arabia is roughly double the number that the country first reported, the Associated Press is reporting.
The Saudi estimate of the disaster was 769, but the new estimate, based on an AP count, suggests that 1,453 people died in the stampede. This new number would make it the deadliest catastrophe in the history of the event.
The Hajj draws roughly 2 million pilgrims to Mecca each year, an observance that lends its host, Saudi Arabia, unrivaled prestige across the Muslim world. It also saddles the kingdom with billions of dollars of costs and logistical considerations. Over the course of the past 40 years, several of the pilgrimages have been marred by deaths caused from stampedes, the collapse of infrastructure, violence, and fires.
Many high-school graduates must choose between two bad options: a four-year program for which they’re not academically or emotionally prepared, or job-specific training that might put a ceiling on their careers.
Two years ago, my nephew was set to graduate from Maryland’s Towson University with a degree in political science. After six long years, both he and his parents were ready to breathe a sigh of relief—he had made it to the finish line. He had never been excited about school, and his parents had worried about his lack of enthusiasm, wishing he could be engaged in something that ignited his curiosity and provided him more of a motivation to focus, something more hands-on and practical. But they also knew that without a bachelor’s degree, my nephew’s ability to move into a rewarding career, earn a middle-class salary, and enjoy some economic security would be very limited. And they worried that if he didn’t complete that degree before he turned 25, he likely never would (a reasonable concern, given national statistics on college completion). Determined to launch him into adulthood with the strongest possible foundation they could, they persuaded him to go to college and crossed their fingers.
American politicians are now eager to disown a failed criminal-justice system that’s left the U.S. with the largest incarcerated population in the world. But they've failed to reckon with history. Fifty years after Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report “The Negro Family” tragically helped create this system, it's time to reclaim his original intent.
By his own lights, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ambassador, senator, sociologist, and itinerant American intellectual, was the product of a broken home and a pathological family. He was born in 1927 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but raised mostly in New York City. When Moynihan was 10 years old, his father, John, left the family, plunging it into poverty. Moynihan’s mother, Margaret, remarried, had another child, divorced, moved to Indiana to stay with relatives, then returned to New York, where she worked as a nurse. Moynihan’s childhood—a tangle of poverty, remarriage, relocation, and single motherhood—contrasted starkly with the idyllic American family life he would later extol.